Esa-Pekka Salonen | Photo by Andrew Eccles/San Francisco Symphony
We’re walking on air here at the KUSC Studios with the news that Esa-Pekka Salonen is returning to California to take over the music directorship of the San Francisco Symphony. I’ve been a fan of Salonen’s since my dad and I attended his thrilling American debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1984. He was only 26 at the time but made such a powerful impression that he was soon offered the music directorship of the orchestra even though he was then little known outside his native Finland. (He ultimately began his 17-year tenure with the LA Phil in 1992.)
As the former host of the orchestra’s radio broadcasts, I had the privilege of closely observing Salonen’s rise to the top of the classical world as both conductor and composer. His absolute mastery of a wide range of repertoire, his openness to new musical ideas, and his fearlessness in exploring new ways of engaging audiences makes him an extraordinary choice to fill the very big shoes of Michael Tilson Thomas.
The current host of the LA Phil’s national radio broadcasts, my colleague Brian Lauritzen, is equally elated: “This really cements the fact that California is the center of orchestral life in the US,” Brian said shortly after hearing the news. “Esa-Pekka has been a transformational figure both in LA and with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. The proverbial ‘way we’ve always done things’ isn’t good enough for him; that’s what makes his work so exciting.”
Like MTT, Salonen is also a riveting speaker on music. Back when I interviewed him for that American debut, he was quite shy, and his English was spotty. Today his command of the language far surpasses my own (though it’s the 5th language he has mastered so far!). Over the years he has likewise become a vivacious and incisive commentator from the stage, peppering his remarks with cutting, often self-deprecating humor.
Salonen has also distinguished himself as an opera conductor of “seething intensity.” New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini wrote of Salonen’s 2016 performance of Elektra: Salonen achieved “uncanny transparency and simmering fervor…drawing out every moment of Straussian lyricism, glowing string sound and delicacy, though the vehement outbursts were steely and terrifying.” Brian Lauritzen was at one of those Elektra performances. He concurred, saying “Salonen’s no-holds-barred approach from the podium resulted in an interpretation that emphasized the slow and agonizing progression of deep, raw psychological turmoil that ends in personal ruin. I left feeling completely wrecked emotionally, and I mean that in the best possible way. “I’m guessing such praise has not escaped the notice of San Francisco Opera. Can’t wait to see what magic Salonen conjures up to the north!
Oh, almost forgot to toot our own horns here! Both Brian and I called it, in a pair of tweets yesterday just 20 minutes apart. (He swears he hadn’t seen mine.)
— Gail Eichenthal (@gaileichenthal) December 4, 2018
🧐 Possibly unrelated, but the SF Sym is announcing MTT’s successor tomorrow afternoon at 5:00. 🧐 https://t.co/8YoS7B3d7L
— Brian Lauritzen 🎙🎶 (@BrianKUSC) December 4, 2018
Michael Tilson Thomas and Esa-Pekka Salonen share a long history with the Los Angeles Philharmonic; MTT was principal guest conductor of the orchestra when Salonen made that American debut. And Salonen really launched his international career by filling in for MTT in 1983 at a concert in London, conducting Mahler’s Third Symphony. Former LA Phil managing director Ernest Fleischmann heard the rumors about this young Finnish phenom, and jumped on a plane to Heathrow just after landing at LAX from a trip to Europe! Following the concert, Fleischmann invited Salonen to make his American debut in Los Angeles. In an Instagram post, MTT acknowledged his long association with EPS:
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I am so happy that my friend and colleague, #EsaPekkaSalonen, is coming to #SanFrancisco. Our lives have been personally and musically intertwined for years and we share many musical values. It will be a joy to collaborate with him on this bright future for the whole @SFSymphony family. A warm welcome to EPS from MTT.