So, Salonen and SanFran: What’s in it for them?

Today’s announcement of Esa-Pekka Salonen as music director of the San Francisco Symphony came as no great surprise. About a dozen people knew about it a couple of days ago and three of them leaked it to Slipped Disc, spiking the SFSO’s best-laid publicity plans with first news of the signing.

Salonen loves the West Coast and lives there much of the time since stepping down at the LA Phil in 2009. The new job keeps him close to his principal cheerleader and the orchestra should respond well to his slightly quirky repetorial challenges.

The only surprise is that he has hardly conducted them before. How much the players were consulted is not being widely discussed.


So what’s in it for both sides?

The San Fran Symphony get a ready-made maestro with worldwide name recognition. It can expect a higher profile from Carnegie Hall to Beijing and a revamped repertoire. Those who imagined SFSO might skip a generation or two and go for a supercharged young conductor clearly don’t know how the money flows in San Francsico.

Salonen is the best deal they can get.

What’s in it for him? A huge salary, which he has missed since leaving LA; a guaranteed stream of commissions to boost his composing output; as much time as he needs to nurture his Finnish roots (he’s conducting a very long Ring cycle in Helsinki); and a secure job with which to end his career.

This is a solid act of music business. I don’t see it as a new beginning.

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  • They know their audience. It will continue to bring in the money, and at least half of the concerts won’t consist of listening to dead people. It’s the safest bet they could have made.

    • Gatti is very unlikely to be asked anywhere of note, and definitely not in London.

      He was removed from positions at the Concertgebou with strong allegations of sexual harassment. He is also new in his position in Rome which is likely where he’ll end up (he’s Italian).

  • Strange to think that Salonen, who always strikes me as eternally youthful, will be coming in as SF Music Director at an older age than when Blomstedt was appointed to the same post.

    • very perspicacious observation.

      Indeed, in the New Yorker interview provided in the link above, Salonen addresses the point headon about his being old, and that’s why he’s associating with a team of young, media and tech savvy, culturally connected collaborators…

  • I’ve heard a rumour about MTT MD in LA. His adorable Pet already moved and took pics in the stage of Disney hall. The pictures mentioned are true (MTT is conducting 2 weeks there, right now), the new MTT position maybe not true. Nevertheless there are a huge group of people happy even if it is just gossip ;-).

    • MTT is in his 70s now and I suspect not in the market for another MD job. And is there any sign of Dudamel going anywhere? He’s got arguably the best job in the business; a supremely-well-resourced organization executing his dreams.

      • As I said, perhaps just a gossip. However your points did not change too much. It’s been almost 30 years ago a 70 something years old Sawallisch took the helm in Philadelphia, a tenure considered one of the best for that orchestra, just to mention one example in the US. MTT looks much more younger today, besides the fact that he will step down SFSO in 2020, and Dudamel contract runs until 2022. I would dare to say that this length sounds quite perfect specially if meanwhile GD didn’t renew again (He always can move after so many years).
        Just to share the link about the mentioned pictures saying “Michael Tilson Thomas December 4th 20:33 · Maydela hopes to audition for the LA Phil”

  • It is a surprise, aside from you knowing a few days early. And why take glee in spiking the orchestra’s publicity plans? There is literally no value in breaking the news a few hours before everyone else.

  • Yes, this is a great appointment, and a safe one, but I’m a little disappointed that SF didn’t look much beyond CA.

    I grew up in SF and I’m old enough to remember the days when SF was generally regarded as 2nd best to LA. MTT really changed that and SF has become a strong musical force with its own identity.

    Appointing LA’s former MD feels a bit like wearing a hand-me-down. SF really had a chance to make a new, bold choice and they recycled their neighbor’s boss. It’s safe, it will be successful, but it’s kind of regurgitated LA instead of new SF.

    You have to wonder if the musicians’ opinions were considered on this.

    • 1) LA Phil was rarely considered even equal to SFS until the Salonen era; 2) Yes, the musicians were consulted, and in fact were an important factor in Salonen’s decision.

      • Thank you for your comment, Darren. As one of the SFS musicians, I would like to say that you are correct and we were consulted and listened to. We are thrilled that Esa Pekka Salonen will be our next Music Director and are very happy with the process that got us to this point.

  • Sorry, but the entire American “classical music scene” is old and stale and driven by the same tired motivations: power and money. And it’s music that suffers. Sorry, EPS. You’ve given your approval to it.

    • I take it you’ve never looked at the programming of LA Phil or SFSO, the former of which EPS was a major player in shaping. “Old and stale” do not come to mind concerning the legacy he left.

  • It’s a wonderful choice. He’s very innovative and the SFSO is very good but will be even better. They will play lots of new works and since they already are so well funded, they will become an even bigger player on the world stage.

    Note too the Nordic influence in classical music. Osmo in Minny, Dausgaard in Seattle, and now this. It makes sense.

    Note too how the “center” of classical music in the USA has shifted to the west coast with the best symphony orchestras (and best funded) being in L.A., S.F., and Seattle.

  • When was anybody really last inspired by him? I mean anything beyond a well executed and coordinated performance – inspiration, music making,… and then, all that alcohol constantly on his breath…

  • Just wondering if you ever feel awkward about “spiking best-laid publicity plans”? I mean these people do actually put in some considerable time and effort organising their promotional matters in order to achieve good publicity for their institutions, and then they get undermined at every turn by self-aggrandising loudmouths who imagine they look clever for doing so. Asking for a friend…

    • “Journalism is printing something that someone doesn’t want you to print. Everything else is PR”.

      It’s a smart scoop by NL; and if SF is worried by that, they need to tighten up. Plenty of stuff goes unleaked, after all. I suspect they’ll secretly be rather pleased that it’s deemed newsworthy enough to leak.

  • though the financial challenges facing the organization are notoriously significant looming even larger on the horizon are crippling personnel issues in the ensemble. it does not overstate or exaggerate the case to note the immediate changes necessary to fully qualify the orchestra as professional caliber. Mark Hanson and Mr. Salonen will be tasked with addressing all of the problems MTT never had the leadership to resolve: two librarians, two percussionists, one low brass, one trumpet, all horns, all bassoons, one clarinet, one oboe, all flutes, six basses, six cellos (especially you know who), five violas, too many violins, and one concertmaster.

    • I am curious to hear what you think the librarians have done (or not done, as the case may be) that makes them a problem. A concertgoer can form an opinion about the playing of a musician by watching and listening, but of a librarian?

    • I think this is an interesting comment. It makes me consider – what type of person tries to advance this kind of position on this kind of website? Oh well we ALL know MTT hasn’t had the leadership to replace those five violas who are so troublesome! And those LIBRARIANS, my gosh. Who is the anticipated audience for this comment? What are you trying to accomplish?

  • Nobody seems to have noticed, so here goes: in 1983, MTT cancelled a Mahler 3rd in London with the Philharmonia on 2 days notice, so an unknown kid named Salonen stepped in and became an overnight sensation. Ernest Fleischman was at the concert, ran backstage and told Salonen he would bring him to the LA Phil – a job tthat MTT desperately wanted, and that his record label CBS-Sony was lobbying to get for him. Salonen got the LA Phil job, CBS Sony signed Salonen, and gradually MTT was phased off of the label. And now Salonen replaces MTT in San Francisco. Interesting…

  • I must say, the SF Symphony has had a dicey relationship with their players in the recent past, and they just recently signed a new contract. The last thing the Symphony wants to do is steamroller over the players when it comes to choosing a music director. I have mixed feelings about this apppointment but no doubt that the musicians are strongly in favor of this.

  • Judging from the comment about the librarians, Curious Observer would have to be either a member of the SF Symph or more likely, a spouse or close acquaintance of an SF Symph player who has heard a lot of complaining. Or possibly a board member who’s heard years of complaints from plenty of insiders. Audience members don’t complain about librarians.

    The comments about specific colleagues – so many of them, esp. those who are not in Principal positions and evident to the audience – are also a giveaway.

    I’d hate to think that a member of the SF Symph would be on a blog making complaints like this, but I do think that a SF Symph “wanna-be” – a spouse, or partner who’s heard all the dirt from over what sounds like many years, might be.
    Although from the rancor with which Curious speaks, it sounds like he/she (I’d venture “he”) has personally been enduring these co-workers for quite a while.

    From the comments we can narrow it down: Curious Observer’s source is not the Concertmaster, not a horn player, not a flutist, not a bassoonist, and of course not one of the librarians.

    My guess is that Curious or his source is a long time tutti string player, someone who’s been there since near the beginning of MTT’s tenure in 1995. Judging from the instruments he is complaining about and proximity to any given section, I’d say it’s someone from the back of the viola section or 2nd violins. Assuming it’s outside seating for celli, last chair players in the 2nds or violas would be right in front of the winds, and close enough to the horns and brass to be that hyper critical. Front desk players are too occupied with their own work and too far away to notice what tutti winds or brass are doing.

    It’s these same last chair players, who, since they are not responsible for exposed passages, take it upon themselves to be super critical and judgemental of colleagues who do.

    If Curious Observer is rehashing complaints that he/she has heard from a partner or close friend in the SF Symph., he should tread carefully. This is an audience which includes experienced orchestral musicians. He’s given us such specific clues, he may reveal himself or his source.

    If Curious just a disgruntled board member or administrator who’s fielded a lot of these complaints from numerous sources over the years and is repeating them here, my comment would be don’t talk the talk unless you can walk the walk. Until you personally sit on the stage of Davies Hall with an instrument in hand and do the job yourself, don’t be criticizing the fine colleagues who can and do every day.

    • Absolutely right! Blasphemy! Insurrection! Concertmaster is in prime form! Principal cello is pristine, spry, and sprightly! Cello section legendary and lovely intonation! Flutes resemble nothing of a frothy youth orchestra quartet! Bassoons hardly ever sound of raucous, diseased geese! Horns are consistently top-notch, and robot-accurate to boot! Cello section supreme through and through! Basses exquisite, and not ever boring or stupid! Percussion hardly ever on the verge of collapse! Everything total grand success! Give all involved the largest contract on earth! Everything so great! Pay pay pay $$$ …Humiliating that your humility can’t accept or acknowledge the rampant failures and musical disasters seated right near your own ears…

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