San Francisco Symphony unveils its 111th season

Esa-Pekka Salonen boldly goes where few American music directors take their orchestras

For 2022–2023, San Francisco Symphony’s 111th year is offering a rich, complex, challenging season. Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen’s third year of programming — announced Tuesday — could be his first to come to fruition after pandemic cancellations, adjustments and limited income.

As he did with spectacular success on the podium of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 17 years, Salonen once again boldly goes where few American music directors take their orchestras.

Combining world and American premieres, commissions and rarely performed large compositions with audience favorites, the new season promises to attract a variety of listeners to fill the 2,743-seat Davies Symphony Hall.

Novelties and experimentation are all the more daring as the Symphony is facing a big comeback challenge. Buying tickets and making contributions will be crucial after the pandemic hit the orchestra with an unprecedented drop in income, turning a large surplus into a sizeable deficit.

In fiscal year 2019, the last before the pandemic, the Symphony had $93.6 million in total revenue and $79.8 million in total expenses, resulting in a $13.8 million surplus. In fiscal year 2020, half of which covered the beginning of the pandemic, the Symphony had $65.3 million in total revenue and $73.2 million in total expenses, resulting in a $7.9 million deficit. More recent information is not yet available, but it’s clear that budgeting is a big issue — although not interfering with bold programming.

Salonen repeated a sentiment first expressed when he took his position: “I came to the San Francisco Symphony because I felt there was a potential for something powerfully transformative to take place here, in this city where things begin, in this state where anything is possible. I could feel that there was something fast approaching — something that I wanted to be a part of.”

Of the plethora of programs to be performed in 10 months of concerts at Davies Symphony Hall and on a European tour postponed by the pandemic, here are some of the highlights:

– Salonen leads world premiere performances of works by Samuel Adams, Magnus Lindberg and Trevor Weston, winner of the 2021 Emerging Black Composers Project; U.S. premiere of Daniel Kidane’s “Precipice Dances.”

– Among returning guest soloists: Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Leif Ove Andsnes, Michelle DeYoung, Lang Lang, Igor Levit and Yuja Wang; and Orchestral Series debuts by Bertrand Chamayou, Randall Goosby, Conor Hanick, Christopher Purves and Golda Schultz.

– Of the many guest conductors, a noteworthy engagement is of Salonen’s predecessor, Michael Tilson Thomas, 77, who is retiring for medical reasons, but still scheduled to lead 12 concerts between November and April 2023. S.F. Symphony Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt, turning 95 this summer, is conducting three concerts in Davies Hall next February.

– Two weeks of programs in October “dedicated to myth, magic and horror,” include the suite from Béla Bartók’s “The Miraculous Mandarin,” Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, HK Gruber’s “Frankenstein!!,” the suite from Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho,” Liszt’s “Totentanz” and Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.”

– Salonen leads programs anchored by Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica,” Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique,” Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6, Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5, Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra,” and Igor Stravinsky’s complete “The Firebird.”

– The orchestra announced a four-year partnership with director Peter Sellars, who has worked for many years with Salonen and John Adams. Sellars will direct a new staged production of Kaija Saariaho’s opera, “Adriana Mater” in June 2023, and is expected to stage productions in future seasons of works by Olivier Messiaen and Leoš Janáček.

Concerts with Levit are of special interest. Called “perhaps the hottest pianist in Europe… with a magical touch” by Salonen, Levit chose to play the Ferruccio Busoni’s Piano Concerto in C Major, described by the music director as “the strangest piano concerto ever written … about 75 minutes long and needs a big orchestra and a chorus … a massive but utterly fascinating journey, full of beauty, struggle, love and pain.”

Levit says of the Busoni concerts, scheduled for June 22–25, 2023: “Few things nowadays make me so happy than thinking forward to playing with the San Francisco Symphony and Esa-Pekka so extensively next year. Especially when part of the program will be Busoni’s magnificent, heroic, huge, long, mounting and really incredible piano concerto.”

Levit will also be the soloist with S.F. Symphony in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, and he plays an extensive recital on June 27, 2023.

An intriguing engagement is of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and her City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in October. A prominent young conductor, she was first scheduled to come in 2019, but canceled when she stopped traveling during pregnancy. Her 2020 engagements were canceled first because of her second pregnancy and then by the pandemic closure. This would be the fourth chance of seeing her here, but … she is expecting her third child.

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