In an announcement that took many by surprise, the San Francisco Symphony has chosen its next Music Director: Esa-Pekka Salonen, who will begin his tenure in September of 2020, after Michael Tilson Thomas retires. The Finnish conductor who led the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 17 years had often said he’d rather spend more time writing music than in front of an orchestra. But the timing and chemistry were right, and there’s a resonance with the very start of his conducting career, when he was a last minute substitute for an injured MTT, and conducted the Mahler Third Symphony to great acclaim.
What convinced Salonen to dive headlong back into a new chapter of orchestral conducting? “It’s the orchestra, it’s an excellent orchestra. Every time I’ve guest conducted them I’ve felt a great connection, a lot of electricity in the air, and I know that I’ll be having a great time working with them. It’s a very open minded, curious community, and the Symphony has been leading the way already for a long time under Michael, so I’m hoping to continue in that tradition.” He says he’s planning on “evolution, not revolution,” and that he shares MTT’s fascination with new music and technology as well as keeping the standard repertoire well represented. “There are challenges that every symphonic organization faces in this culture and also globally. The culture has been changing a lot, with communications technology. The fact that most — especially younger — people experience the world through the interface of a touch screen, and so on.” To help come up with ways to address those challenges, he’s enlisted a team of young musicians and thinkers, including composer Nico Muhly, soprano Julia Bullock, flutist Claire Chase, as well as a researcher into artificial intelligence and robotics. And given the proximity of the Silicon Valley, he sees opportunities for new exploration: “To collaborate with the tech community, create artistically meaningful and interesting exciting projects where the latest technology marries the tradition of a symphony orchestra… This is a place where innovation has been happening for a long time, and it’s a place where things are being born that have a global impact. It seems to be a place where everything is possible, ideas can become reality.”