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San Francisco Symphony Musicians Urge Leadership to Keep Esa-Pekka Salonen

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Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the San Francisco Symphony on Jan. 18, 2019.  (Brandon Patoc/San Francisco Symphony)

The musicians of the San Francisco Symphony are calling for the Symphony’s board to retain Esa-Pekka Salonen as music director.

The Symphony announced on March 14 that the upcoming 2024–25 season will be Salonen’s last as music director, framing the departure as a simple contract expiration.

But in a statement shared with KQED, Salonen said, “I do not share the same goals for the future of the institution as the Board of Governors,” without elaborating.

Later that day, the orchestra delivered a bouquet of flowers onstage to Salonen. After a performance on Saturday, musicians stationed outside Davies Symphony Hall distributed flyers to patrons, asking them to email Symphony leadership and “urge them to do what it takes to retain our world-class Maestro.”

A flyer distributed outside Davies Symphony Hall on Saturday, March 16, 2024, calling on patrons to urge the Symphony to keep Esa-Pekka Salonen as music director.

The dispute is widely understood to be about cost-cutting measures.


In the flyer and a press release distributed on Monday, orchestra musicians criticized the board’s decision to cancel the orchestra’s European tour and make cuts to its digital projects, educational initiatives and its nightclub-environment series, SoundBox. They added that the cancellations and cuts raise “serious questions about the future of the Symphony.”

Through a representative, Salonen declined comment to KQED.

“Esa-Pekka is a force for innovation and experimentation in classical music, and that kind of innovation requires investment,” said Catherine Payne, the Symphony’s piccolo player and a representative from the musicians’ artistic and action committees.

Payne believes it’s still feasible for the Symphony board to reverse course and keep Salonen, who, at least to the orchestra, appears to want to stay, should certain conditions be met. According to the musicians’ flyer, Salonen had also personally argued for the Symphony to restore musicians’ salaries to pre-pandemic levels, like other major orchestras have done.

The Symphony provided no immediate comment for this story.

Musicians argue that the Symphony’s endowment — currently among the largest of American orchestras, at $324.5 million — should be utilized to pay for restoring programs, touring and Salonen’s salary.

According to publicly available records that the Symphony is required to file as a nonprofit, Salonen’s total compensation for the fiscal year ending in August of 2021 was $2,065,642, comparable to that of his predecessor, Michael Tilson Thomas.

A middle-aged white man in black clothing stands against a black background, hands clasped at front.
Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, will exit his position in June 2025. (Cody Pickens)

Large nonprofits are typically hesitant to dip into endowment funds to cover deficits.

“But what is the endowment for?” asked Payne. “Is it to fund the music director’s artistic vision, or is it to just sit there and be added to, and grown and grown? The money in the endowment is to fund programing and the kind of projects that the orchestra is known for.”

As classical music critic Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Boards tend to be composed of highly successful individuals who are not always in the habit of listening to others, especially others who want to risk their money.”

Matthew Spivey, the Symphony’s CEO, told other outlets last week that he understood Salonen’s decision to leave in the wake of the cuts to programming, and that the organization faced “significant financial pressures” that had become “impossible to ignore.”

Salonen’s tenure began in 2020, during the pandemic, which worsened what Spivey characterized as already existing budget problems. Spivey announced the canceled European tour and other programming cuts to the orchestra in January of this year.

Payne said that the musicians have been “deeply troubled” by the board’s decisions, adding that Salonen, who had been attracted to the creative possibilities of the Bay Area’s technology sector, had plans for new digital projects with Apple and Google on the horizon.

“We’re really a flagship institution that constantly pushes the boundaries of classical music, and is doing cutting-edge things,” said Payne, who has been with the orchestra for nearly 30 years. “It’s so sad to see all the progress that we’ve made over the decades, and how quickly that is going away.”

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