Salonen Takes Center Stage

Esa-Pekka Salonen

Photo Credit: Andrew Eccle

On the cutting edge of innovation and technology, the transposition of classical music in the 21st century has been awarded a new leader. Captivating souls through his powerful and majestic presence, Finnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen will lead the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) as musical director beginning in 2020.

Salonen at his introduction to San Francisco

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

Former music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Salonen currently leads London’s Philharmonia Orchestra as conductor and artistic advisor. Under Salonen’s leadership, crucial breakthroughs in digital installations have allowed followers from around the globe to experience an orchestra through audio and visual projections. Taking the music world by surprise, the announcement of Salonen championing the SFS excites on many fronts. His gallant and infectious spirit consistently drives him to experiment around avenues of technology while deviation from relic has proven to be his forte.

Mark Hanson, Melissa Kleinbart, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Sako Fisher, and Matt Cohler at the official announcement of Salonen’s new role

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

Known as one of the most vibrant, acclaimed, and famed artists of our time, Salonen thought San Francisco was a “natural fit” when deciding to make a move to the Bay Area. With innovation spewing from all directions, geographically San Francisco deemed the most intriguing to Salonen. However, Salonen has rather large shoes to fill and succeeding Michael Tilson Thomas will be no easy feat. Directing the SFS for over 23 seasons and leading the industry as the longest-tenured director in any American orchestra, Tilson Thomas will conclude his run with the SFS in fine fashion.

Photo Credit: Andrew Eccles

The passing of the torch came as a big shock as 60-year-old Salonen previously noted he was not looking for a new conducting opportunity and NPR tweeted about “the surprise move.” As if this couldn’t get any more intriguing, Salonen will be accompanied by a diverse eight-member creative flow of advisors. This list includes a robotics scientist, an Academy Award-nominated composer, new musicians as well as advocates for additional contemporary scores.

The San Francisco Symphony

Photo Credit: Olivia Hsu Decker

In an era of increasingly greater classical music following by the younger generation of today, Tilson Thomas and Salonen bring about many commonalities to the stage and their respective philosophies, making the transition seamless yet still neoteric and contemporary. The similarities between Tilson Thomas and Salonen include their mutual interests in bringing access to classical music, the enhancement of the orchestral experience through multimedia and what is called creative staging, and attracting a broader audience to classical music through different media platforms.

Salonen meets new fans

Tilson Thomas was famed for his PBS television series and multimedia projects from the YouTube Symphony Orchestra to providing K-12 grades classical music in their school’s core curriculum. All of which were designed to make classical music more attainable to people of all ages and musical backgrounds. Through his leadership and inspiration, the succession of directors will continue to grow in spirit, harmony, and zest. Salonen drives home a great contemporary feel and proves successful in his recent dabbles from years past.

Photo Credit: Andrew Eccles

In 2015, he lectured at Apple’s Distinguished Educator Conference about the use of technology in musical education and it’s importance and ability driving forward. He stated, “It’s not about how big of a budget you have. The Philharmonia Orchestra in London is a great example of how to use technology and music in an inspiring way. Many companies could do the same. I would not be able to live or work without technology. I can work with my iPad and then, for example, save the compositions to Dropbox. This way I can access my music wherever I am in the world.”

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

Salonen has a deep affection for both the new and old—high tech and century-old scores. In fact, it is his love for technology that allows him to preserve and share ancient classical pieces in new ways. This excites the palate when dreaming up what comes next for Salonen. The beauty is in the juxtaposition; the canvas of old versus new and its ability to reinvent with vigor and intensity. As we say goodbye to a wonderful era showcased by the talented Tilson Thomas, we welcome the magnificent revolution in music as Salonen takes center stage. What mark will he put on San Francisco’s classical music scene? Only time will tell.