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Review: Esa-Pekka Salonen takes lead as conductor of San Francisco Symphony

By January 22, 2019 No Comments
Esa-Pekka Salonen, right, conducts the San Francisco Symphony for the first time Jan. 18 since his appointment as music director-designate. (Brandon Patoc/San Francisco Symphony)

San Francisco Symphony audiences at Davies Symphony Hall gave a loud and lengthy welcome to Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director-designate of the orchestra, who will take the reins in the fall of 2020.

Little wonder, given the quality of the performances Jan. 18-20 and Salonen’s reputation as an innovative and exciting conductor — one critic has described him as “a fixed point of cerebral cool.”

Salonen is pretty much universally acclaimed in musical circles,  even as he appears in Apple ads (he acknowledges his passion for technology in music), and speaks frankly about some of the unmusical tasks U.S. conductors must take on:  “In the U.S., the conductor in a big city is the public face of classical music,” he said. “You must often be on parade for sponsors.”

He is currently principal conductor for the London Philharmonia, where he created sound installations that allow the public to conduct, play and sit in in with the players. His Twitter account states: “All tweets from me except the self-promotional and self-aggrandising ones which are from  my mom.”

Few thought he would be a likely candidate for the job here as he had turned down the New York Philharmonic after his 17-year-stint at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He clearly believes life on the West Coast will afford him more time to compose, and we can only wish him well and look forward to first hearings.

In  the concerts, Salonen openied with Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Metacosmos,’’  the 41-year-old  Icelandic composer’s first commission from the New York Philharmonic.

The 14-minute work,  described as “the space between beauty and chaos,’’  begins with massive dark orchestral sound, great shifting subterranean layers that fracture into percussion dialogues and silvery string dazzle.

A highly impressive piece by a composer we are sure to hear more from. The orchestra gave it all the fire and fury and sweetness Salonen asked for.

(Brandon Patoc/San Francisco Symphony)

Following was Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,’’ which with its explosive score makes a good pairing with “Metacosmos.”

It is a work we know well; Stanley Kubrick borrowed from it for the opening of his 1968 film, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  Strauss considered it the most formally perfect and individual of his works, and Salonen’s reading, from the glowering opening to the exacting fugue and lush waltzes, was well-balanced and strongly focused, vibrant but never overblown.

The final work on the program was Sibelius’ suite, “Four Legends from the Kalevala,’’ the Finnish national saga. Salonen’s reading of this engaging piece was equally forceful and measured, and signaled his abiding affinity with his country.

Throughout the concert, vibes from stage and pit showed a strong connection emerging between conductor and players.

Salonen’s tenure following Michael Tilson Thomas’ formidable 25 years with San Francisco Symphony promises bold and brainy programming, innovation and very likely a new signature sound for the orchestra.