Esa-Pekka Salonen plans innovative 109th SF Symphony season

Dozens of premieres, first local performances in 2020-21

Twenty-five years after Michael Tilson Thomas arrived as San Francisco Symphony’s music director, shaking up programming, his successor Esa-Pekka Salonen has announced his vision for the orchestra’s future.

MTT, 75, will complete his quarter-century service at the end of the season in June, becoming music director laureate. Salonen, music director designate, picks up the baton in the fall for the orchestra’s 109th season, which promises to be exciting, complex and challenging.

The Finnish composer-conductor, 61, brought the Los Angeles Philharmonic to international prominence when he led it from 1992-2009. In the decade since, he has been courted by major orchestras around the world to be their music director, but he declined the offers — until accepting San Francisco’s call a year ago.

Announcing his first season, for 2020-21, Salonen said his decision to take the job was predicated on by the orchestra itself, calling the musicians an “expressive, flexible, open, powerful group of players.”

He said, “As we begin this new phase together, the ‘what-ifs’ of the orchestra world are on the table in a real way. This is a top symphony orchestra, located in the place in America where things begin, where the way things have always been done are reinvented and where global problems are solved. I see big ideas being thought and actual work being done.”

With more than two dozen premieres or first local performances, Salonen’s season offers a dazzling lineup of new music, debuts by conductors and soloists, and the involvement of young artists out of the mainstream of conventional symphonic music.

From the season-opening gala on Sept. 20, with “Bach’s music reimagined by the Collaborative Partners,” to the closing in June 2021, novelties prevail.

Details on the “reimagined Bach” are pending, but the closing 2021 program is being presented now in Los Angeles. In the “Music of the Weimar Republic” festival, Salonen leads semi-staged performances of Hindemith’s “Murderer, the Hope of Women,” Weill’s “Berlin Requiem” and “The Seven Deadly Sins.”

Julia Wolfe’s “Her Story,” a co-commission honoring the centennial of women’s suffrage in the U.S., premieres Nov. 12. (Courtesy Peter Serling)

Julia Wolfe’s “Her Story,” a co-commission honoring the centennial of women’s suffrage in the U.S., premieres Nov. 12. (Courtesy Peter Serling)

The SFS premiere of Florence Price’s 1934 Piano Concerto (Nov. 12 and Nov. 14) is paired with the SFS co-commission “Her Story” by Julia Wolfe, written to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the ratification of women’s suffrage in the United States and featuring the Lorelei Ensemble.

Salonen’s latest composition “Gemini,” depicting twin half-brothers Castor and Pollux is slated for March 5–7, 2021 on a program with a suite from Rameau’s one-act opera “Castor and Pollux” and Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé.”

The world premiere of Chinese-born American composer Fang Man’s yet untitled composition blending Chinese and Greek mythology is on a program from March 11–13, 2021 with the rarely-performed Scriabin’s “Prometheus: The Poem of Fire” and Beethoven’s “Creatures of Prometheus.”

A striking aspect of the programming is Salonen’s Collaborative Partners project, announced last year, featuring contributions by: pianist, film producer and composer Nicholas Britell; soprano, curator and activist Julia Bullock; flutist, educator and experimental music advocate Claire Chase; composer and new music curator Bryce Dessner; violinist, musical director and artistic trailblazer Pekka Kuusisto; composer and genre-breaking collaborator Nico Muhly; artificial intelligence entrepreneur and roboticist Carol Reiley; and jazz bassist, vocalist and “undefinable artist” Esperanza Spalding.

In addition to performing, the eight are programming the two-week season-opening Collaborative Partners Festival and four SoundBox events.

“I’ve never achieved anything on my own,” Salonen said. “Every achievement that I’m really proud of has been a result of collaboration.”

As musical theater and choral concert fans anticipate MTT’s grand finale (June 11-15) with Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” and Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, the “Symphony of a Thousand” (June 25-28) they can also look forward to Salonen’s big plans. He will conduct concert performances of Béla Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” (Oct. 8-11) and Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” (March 18-22, 2021), with Christine Goerke, singing the title role, as she did to great acclaim with the San Francisco Opera in 2017.

Large-scale choral works showcasing Ragnar Bohlin’s SFS Chorus include Bach’s B minor Mass (April 22-24, 2021) conducted by Jane Glover, and Britten’s War Requiem (May 13-15, 2021) conducted by Philippe Jordan, with tenor Ian Bostridge and baritone Iain Paterson.

Visitors to Davies Symphony Hall include the City of Birmingham Symphony, China Philharmonic Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Bach Collegium Japanm National Orchestra of Mexico and Mariinsky Orchestra as well as Great Performers Series soloists including violinists Joshua Bell and Itzhak Perlman and pianists Rudolf Buchbinder, Lang Lang, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Daniil Trifonov,

MTT will be back on several occasions to conduct to Beethoven’s “Missa solemnis,” Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15.


San Francisco Symphony 2020-21 season

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: Sept. 30, 2020 through June 26, 2021

Tickets: Subscriptions range from $150 (six concerts) to $3,624 (24 concerts)

Contact: (415) 864-6000,

Note: Subscriptions go on sale Feb. 18; single tickets (prices to be announced) on sale July 11

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