Arts & Events

Esa Pekka Salonen: A Questionable Choice to Lead SF Symphony

James Roy MacBean
Saturday December 15, 2018 - 01:31:00 PM

I am quite disappointed with San Francisco Symphony’s choice of 60 year-old Finnish conductor Esa Pekka Salonen to replace Michael Tilson Thomas as their next Music Director. To my mind, they have simply opted for more of the same, thereby forgoing a chance to move decisively forward into the 21st century. There were plenty of young, vibrant conductors available. My favorite to succeed MTT was a much younger Finnish conductor, 49 year-old Susanna Målkki, who has repeatedly shown her brilliance here as a guest conductor. Naming her as the next Music Director would have been a major step forward in promoting women to top orchestral positions. But, no, the San Francisco Symphony played their cards conservatively, instead opting for yet another white male conductor, and one a bit long in the tooth at that.  

To make matters worse, in his first statements since accepting the new post, Esa Pekka Salonen has indicated his interest in furthering what to my mind was the absolutely worst element of MTT’s reign here – a fascination with tech attempts to gussy up classical music with video and special effects. “I’m a tech geek,” says Salonen. “I believe that the format and the ritual of a classical concert can and should be developed,” he told the Chronicle in a recent interview. “I don’t want to mess with the actual material, but I am interested in enhancing this experience towards more of a multisensory approach.” This was absolutely the last thing I was hoping for in the search for a new Music Director! Indeed, I am beside myself in indignation at this! The last thing we needed at SF Symphony was more of MTT’s misguided, often puerile, attempts at visual special effects. I am truly appalled at the Symphony’s decision to continue in this dead-end trajectory even while posing as if it were a forward-looking direction.  

New York’s Metropolitan Opera recently took a bold step into the future by naming 43 year-old Quebecois conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin to succeed the aging James Levine, who is now considered damaged goods after accusations against him of sexual abuse of young boys. Why couldn’t the San Francisco Symphony make a similar bold move into the future by naming a young conductor, of which there are many deserving of consideration, instead of conservatively opting for the old guard? Indeed, Esa Pekka Salonen is in many ways the mirror image of Michael Tilson Thomas. They both rose to major conducting appointments at a relatively young age – MTT took over the reins of San Francisco Symphony in 1995 at age 45, and Esa Pekka Salonen became Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1992 at age 34. Both men built their respective orchestras into leading American symphony orchestras. Salonen remained at LA for 17 years, and MTT will have logged 25 years in San Francisco when he steps down in 2020. Moreover, both MTT and Salonen double – or should we say, dabble – as composers as well as conductors, and they each employ in their compositions a mixture of European modernism and American experimentalism. Admittedly, Esa Pekka Salonen has a more extensive and more frequently heard portfolio of compositions than does MTT; but the prospect of hearing lots of Salonen’s music here in San Francisco is hardly thrilling. Oh well, I may have huge reservations about Salonen’s appointment here; but we’ll all just have to keep an open mind and see what develops.