SF Symphony’s post-pandemic season offers daring innovation

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s programming features new works, diverse guests

San Francisco Symphony is coming out of the pandemic doldrums not with a whimper but with a bang. Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen has announced a bold, ambitious 2021-22 season.

After more than a year of unemployment, individual and organizational hardship and an operating budget dropping from $85 million in 2019 to $48 million in 2020, the obvious thing would be to go slow, with popular, well-worn favorites.

Not Salonen. The music director, 63, is known for his bold programs, which brought the Los Angeles Philharmonic to national prominence during his tenure there from 1992 to 2009. He’ll do the same thing in Davies Symphony Hall, which opened to full occupancy on June 24.

Noting that the future will not be a kind a “new normal,” he said, “It should be to push boundaries and explore the world around us with openness and curiosity. It’s up to us to make sure that this place is one where the act of creating art in one another’s presence continues to feel as precious and irreplaceable as it has in the last year, while simultaneously reaching those previously out of reach through digital channels. I have complete faith that this organization will make that a reality.”

Upcoming concerts include new and unusual music, premieres and emphasis on ethnic and gender diversity.

After the just-announced summer season, which runs July 2 through Aug. 13, the fall season-opening triad – the All-San Francisco Concert (Sept. 30), the Opening Gala honoring former San Francisco Symphony President Sakurako and William Fisher (Oct. 1) and the Orchestral Series No. 1 (Oct. 2) — have the same unusually contemporary program: John Adams’ “Slonimsky’s Earbox”; Ginastera’s “Estancia” Suite with dance by Alonzo King LINES Ballet; songs by Wayne Shorter featuring bassist-vocalist Esperanza Spalding and Silvestre Revueltas’ “Noche de encantamiento” from his film score “La noches de los Mayas.”

A wealth of world premieres includes commissions and co-commissions: Fang Man’s “Song of the Flaming Phoenix,” a sheng concerto performed by Wu Wei; John Corigliano’s Saxophone Concerto, performed by Timothy McAllister and principal trombonist Timothy Higgins playing his Trombone Concerto.

More innovations add to the already established Innovative Collaborative Partner and SoundBox concerts. Soprano Julia Bullock appears in “History’s Persistent Voice,” a multimedia program inspired by artwork and writing of Black Americans including new works by Camille Norment and Cecile McLorin Salvant, Tania Leon, Allison Loggins-Hull, Jessie Montgomery, Carolyn Yarnell and Pamela Z.

Other novelties include the premieres of Hannah Kendall’s “Tuxedo: Vasco ‘de’ Gama” and Unsuk Chin’s “Graffiti”; “Exotic Birds” featuring music by Debussy, Messiaen and the local premiere of Saariaho’s “Aile du songe”; the U.S. premiere of Bryce Dessner’s Violin Concerto; and the West Coast premiere of Unsuk Chin’s “Subito con Forza” on a program with Ligeti’s Concert Romanesc.

Among debuting guest conductors: Giancarlo Guerrero, Klaus Mäkelä, Michael Morgan, Perry So, Ruth Reinhardt, Daniel Stewart, Nathalie Stutzmann, and Xian Zhang.

Returning conductors include Michael Tilson Thomas, Herbert Blomstedt, Ragnar Bohlin, Karina Canellakis, Gustavo Dudamel, Christoph Eschenbach, Ton Koopman, and Simone Young.

While Salonen’s anticipated opera presentations, “Elektra” and “Bluebeard’s Castle” were abandoned in the 2020-21 season, Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” is slated for June along with a new semi-staged production of Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms.”

In addition to returning guest artists Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Yefim Bronfman, Gautier Capuçon, Leila Josefowicz, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Daniil Trifonov, Yuja Wang and Alisa Weilerstein, debuting artists include J’Nai Bridges, Claire Chase, Aaron Diehl, Pekka Kuusisto, Demarre McGill, Víkingur Ólafsson and Melody Wilson, among others.

In a city well versed in crises and survival, the symphony remains determined. Symphony CEO Mark C. Hanson said, “The 220-plus concerts that comprise the new season are rooted in our mission to reimagine how people everywhere engage with music in deep and meaningful ways, and are shaped by the kind of flexible thinking and inclusive collaboration that have been key to everything we have achieved together throughout the pandemic year that is now behind us.”

Season tickets are on sale now; tickets for individual concerts go on sale on Aug. 31. For information, call (415) 864-6000 or go to sfsymphony.org.

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