Salonen makes powerful SF Symphony debut

Esa-Pekka Salonen, slated to succeed Michael Tilson Thomas as the San Francisco Symphony’s 12th music director is 2020, already is offering tantalizing samples of the creative ideas he has in mind for his upcoming stewardship.

On Friday at Davies Symphony Hall, the Finnish conductor and composer made a powerful first appearance as music director designate, leading the orchestra on an exciting journey filled with atmospherics that explored realms of the unknown as well as familiar musical terrain.

A poised, imaginative pilot, Salonen, 60, opened the program with the West Coast premiere of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s otherworldly odyssey “Metacosmos,” which he conducted in its April 4, 2018 premiere with the New York Philharmonic.

Thorvaldsdottir says her one-movement composition was inspired by the metaphor of falling into a black hole. With an ominous, string bass-laden beginning, the work indeed suggests a dark voyage, but Salonen, with confident control (sans baton), shaped rich sounds and colors while deftly guiding the orchestra (and audience) back to Earth.

“Metacosmos” is a refreshing addition to the repertoire; it’s encouraging to see Salonen showcase new works, particularly those by female composers.

From the relative unknown, Salonen continued the program with Richard Strauss’ familiar, though no less atmospheric and awe-inspiring, tone poem, “Also sprach Zarathustra.” Reunited with his baton, Salonen adroitly led the orchestra through the daunting work with clarity and aplomb.

The well-known opening of brassy flourishes and thumping timpani filled the house with glowing energy and warmth, and then Salonen smoothly transitioned the orchestra through the remainder of the volatile score — Strauss’ take on Friedrich Nietzsche’s tome — while making quite palpable the philosopher’s line, “Life without music would be a mistake.”

Salonen maintained the evening’s Northern European focus after intermission with Jean Sibelius’ national myth-inspired suite “Four Legends from the Kalevala.” The best-known third movement, “The Swan of Tuonela,” with its wistfully graceful theme shared by a gorgeous, poignant English horn solo, is often performed alone. But the rest of the opus is no less engaging, particularly with Salonen’s sensitive yet thrilling phrasing.

Friday marked only the second time San Francisco Symphony performed the entire suite; additional full renderings of the work would be welcome.

At a post-concert question-and-answer session with Mark C. Hanson, the symphony’s chief executive officer, Salonen said he has plans to partner with the tech sector to “create projects that use state-of-the-art technology such as immersive (experiences), artificial intelligence or robotics.”

He’ll also work with an advisory “brain trust” of artists: pianist, 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.

Salonen said his guiding principle of collaboration is geared toward the community: “We are here to serve this city and the Bay Area and everybody in it. And so we ought to share what we do.”

James Ambroff-Tahan
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James Ambroff-Tahan

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