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Esa-Pekka Salonen named San Francisco Symphony director

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Esa-Pekka Salonen is coming back to California to head up the San Francisco Symphony. (Courtesy Andrew Eccles)

The San Francisco Symphony’s next music director, its 12th in 107 years, will be Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The acclaimed Finnish conductor and composer, former music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conductor of Philharmonia Orchestra in London, is slated to take over for Michael Tilson Thomas in September 2020, the orchestra’s president Sakurako Fisher and chief executive officer Mark C. Hanson announced this morning.

Salonen, 60, known for adventurous programming across the world, will step into the spotlight immediately, assuming the music director designate role by leading the symphony’s Jan. 18–20, 2019 concerts, which include the local premiere of a work by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir and music by R. Strauss and Sibelius.

The announcement came as a surprise, after MTT, 73, said he would step down after 25 years in October 2017.

Salonen said he wasn’t seeking another directorship, but said of the San Francisco opportunity: “There was a ‘no brainer’ aspect to this that I’ve been fortunate to have experienced a few times before in my career, so I know it when I see it. ”

Noting the symphony’s dedication and skill with masterpieces and new works, Salonen said, “They have had the powerhouse combination of Michael’s exacting musicality and freedom of spirit for 25 years: a legacy I’m privileged to inherit.”

Salonen, who made his San Francisco Symphony conducting debut in 2004, has returned to work with the group frequently.

MTT said of the appointment, “I am so happy that my friend and colleague is coming to San Francisco.”

Symphony CEO Hanson said, “As one of the most sought-after conductors, composers and creative thinkers, he is focused on making classical music more accessible, expanding the collaborative model and reimagining the role of an orchestra in its community. We have found in Esa-Pekka a partner with whom we can build on the trajectory of artistic growth established under Michael Tilson Thomas and Herbert Blomstedt before him.”

Fisher and Hanson also announced that eight artists from varied disciplines will join Salonen in leadership roles as the orchestra moves toward more innovation. They are: pianist, film producer and composer Nicholas Britell; soprano and curator Julia Bullock; flutist and new music educator Claire Chase; composer-violinist Pekka Kuusisto; composer Nico Muhly; artificial intelligence entrepreneur Carol Reiley and jazz bassist-vocalist Esperanza Spalding.

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