Breaking: Salonen to San Francisco

Breaking: Salonen to San Francisco


norman lebrecht

December 05, 2018

We are hearing from two close sources that Esa-Pekka Salonen will be announced later today as music director of the San Francisco Symphony, successor to Michael Tilson Thomas.

Salonen, 60, yesterday called time on 13 years with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, clearing his diary for a new appointment.

Salonen conducted the SFSO in 2015 in performances of his composition, NYX and, before that, in 2011. Since leaving the Los Angeles Phil to Gustavo Dudamel, he has developed relationships with the New York Phil, Chicago, Philadelphia and Houston.

So why SanFran?

More to the point, good move, bad move?

UPDATE: So, Salonen and San Francisco – what’s in it for them?


  • anon says:

    Top, established conductors realize in their mature years that control over an orchestra is more important than the prestige of the orchestra.

    For example, Salonen, like Muti, both turned down the NY Phil for another orchestra, when, arguably, NY has a more storied history, but both realized that they don’t need résumé padding at this point in their careers, being reminded that they would be in the same lineage as “Mahler, Toscanini, Bernstein” is irrelevant for their capacity for meaningful artistic output. See Abbado, Rattle, with Berlin, etc.

    So we have to see what kind of deal Salonen negotiated with SFS. Maybe it’s the money, maybe it’s because his children still live in LA, maybe it’s the scheduling flexibility, maybe it’s the programming, maybe it’s all that.

  • barry guerrero says:

    While I like Salonen, I was hoping for younger talent. We’ve had some very guest conducted concerts in S.F. over the last ten years. But for me it’s kind of a moot point, now that live about 70 miles south of there.

  • Herr Doktor says:

    I am not trying to be a contrarian, but I have been underwhelmed by the two times I heard Salonen conduct live. He struck me more as a showman than as a first-rate interpreter. His repertoire may not align with my favorite music, but that’s not where my concerns about him come from. I’m just not sure how good he really is in the core repertoire of the 19th century. If I lived in SF I wouldn’t be thrilled by this news, although I would still listen on a more extended basis before making my mind up for sure.

    • Anon says:

      He’s not great at it.
      But that’s not how he made his name either.

    • Robin Smith says:

      I have attended most of his performances with the Philharmonia in London. You should greatly enjoy his Mahler, his Debussy, his Ravel, his Stravinsky, his own music, his Sibelius and his determination to introduce new music to you. I suspect the SF will invite other conductors to look after the bulk of earlier 19th Century music, Mozart etc. His best performances have been of the highest calibre – very well prepared and inspired on the day.

    • Bruce says:

      ” He struck me more as a showman than as a first-rate interpreter.”

      Well, they hired MTT, so maybe that’s what they like 🙂

  • Brian says:

    Salonen has an interest in things tech – apps and VR – and I believe was involved in an ad campaign for Apple. Being near Silicon Valley would make sense in that regard.

  • Fantastic city. A good orchestra, no more, but the fantastic NorCal lifestyle and SFSO $$$ is a big draw for some at a certain point in their lives (think leader—left the LSO and oboe—left Chicago).

    Definite step down in the quality for and prestige stakes for the Finn, but at his age and after the London ‘life’ for many years, probably a great choice for him.

    After MTT, SFSO just got really lucky. Well done them.

    • Caravaggio says:

      Nowhere near a fantastic city any longer. What is this fantastic NorCal lifestyle? Do you mean trailer homes for USD 1M+? Or garages turned homes for USD 2M+? Or cheaper, living in a car? Fantastic for the few.

      • Bill says:

        He will certainly be one of the few. Plenty of wealthy people in San Francisco who could afford to live elsewhere if they wanted. Maybe they like it here?

    • John Kelly says:

      I would say better than “good, no more” – I would say “very good and pretty much in the same league as the LAPO, St Louis or the BSO, though without the latter’s glowing string tone.” I heard them recently at Carnegie and they were very very impressive. Excellent wind soloists, of course Inouye is a stellar first trumpet and they have a good overall sound, with a better string sound than some years ago..

    • Josh Williams says:

      I would not call the SFS a step down from the Philharmonia.

    • Malcolm James says:

      Step down? Not sure about that. The term ‘Big 5’ is anachronistic now and I that that SF and LA at least should be added to the list of top rank American orchestras.

  • MacroV says:

    I wouldn’t have guessed it given his relatively limited relationship with SF, but every orchestra these days is good, so there is no “step down” here. San Francisco is a hip, happening place, and the orchestra has as many resources as any other orchestra to do the kind of programming EPS might want to do. Good for them.

  • Karl Luttinger says:

    Good choice both for SFSO and for Salonen. MTT showed that they can sound world-class. And Salonen may well also do that.

  • Barry says:

    I immediately thought about the fact that he may have been able to get the job in New York if he had wanted it when I read this. Then my next thought was that he probably prefers the West Coast lifestyle to the East Coast or any other part of the U.S. He had plenty of years in Los Angeles to figure that out.
    I look forward to seeing him with the Philadelphia in February.

    • MWnyc says:

      Unfortunately, I don’t think the NY Phil board is interested in the kind of programming Salonen is really good at. (If they were, Alan Gilbert wouldn’t have had to leave.)

      • JJS says:

        This is a perceptive comment. I don’t exactly love Salonen but his approach is way more SF’s speed than NY’s. Which I find rather sad.

  • Roberto says:

    Interesting… Very similar style to MTT. They even look alike. Similar repertoire centered in Sibelius, Beethoven, Mahler, Stravinsky and so on. They both compose. They promote new music. Very similar.

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    Easier to do Apple commercials from SF than from NYC.

  • Tim Page says:

    He loves California, and has lived there since stepping down from the LA Phil some years ago. I think it’s a perfect fit. And what a city!

  • Boringfileclerk says:

    Brilliant choice! I can only see great things ahead for the orchestra!

  • kaa12840 says:

    Great choice for SFS. BTW I don’t think he was offered the job at the NY Phil; it was the New York Times critics who kept up the drum beat even though it was very clear (from my friends in the orchestra) that while the orchestra liked him, he initially said he wasn’t interested and they were happy because they didn’t want him. He is a California type and his children are in LA. So good luck to him and great news in SF. He was a great conductor at the Met too.