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Esa-Pekka Salonen, future music director of the San Francisco Symphony, lays out plans to disrupt the classical world

Esa-Pekka Salonen, future music director of the San Francisco Symphony, lays out plans to disrupt the classical world
Esa-Pekka Salonen was announced as the new music director of the San Francisco Symphony on Wednesday. (Los Angeles Times)

In another unexpected turn of fate for Esa-Pekka Salonen, the former visionary music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic will become the next music director of the San Francisco Symphony in 2020, recruiting a “brain trust” of young talent and pushing the boundaries of music with technology like VR, he said in an interview with The Times.

Salonen launched his career 35 years ago when the then-unknown 25-year-old Finnish composer and novice conductor stepped in on short notice for an indisposed Michael Tilson Thomas with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. Salonen will end a 13-year tenure as principal conductor and artistic advisor of the Philharmonia the year after he takes over in San Francisco, where Tilson Thomas has been music director for nearly a quarter century.

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On the surface this is a startling development. As one of the world’s most celebrated conductors and composers, Salonen regularly gets the first call from search committees from top orchestras in Europe and the U.S. looking to fill an opening. But San Francisco was never on his radar, he said recently over a cortado in a Santa Monica cafe.

“I didn’t think I would be music director in this country again,” he said. “I thought, I’ve done my bit. So when members of the San Francisco Symphony came to London for an informal chat to talk about this last August, I was very surprised. Then I started thinking about it. And it started to make a lot of sense. My feeling was that they had decided I’d be the best fit.”

San Francisco was drawn to the whole package, not just one aspect. “Pretty much everything I do,” he said.

“And it’s California. Somehow things are possible in this part of the world that are not possible elsewhere. It just felt right.”

Which is a modest way of saying that the San Francisco Symphony has the ambition to revolutionize symphonic music in particular and possibly the entire relationship between Silicon Valley and the arts in general. Salonen, who made the L.A. Phil the world’s most progressive major orchestra and then turned the Philharmonia into the most tech-savvy with elaborate multimedia installations and virtual reality projects, will be given free rein and considerable resources for what promises to be a grand experiment.

“I don’t have a perfectly formed master plan at this point,” Salonen said. “I need to get the feel of the city. I’ve been there many times, but I’ve never spent any length of time in the Bay Area. It’s a city which is going through a difficult phase, and the main challenge is how to position a symphonic institution in a community like that where things are complex.

“There is a whole new upper class, which is not traditional but a tech upper class, and the young tech community does not see orchestral music as their go-to thing. Of course, the fact is very clear I’m the old white guy and European by origin. So I need help in terms of creating a proper identity for the orchestra.”

That help will come in the form of what Salonen calls a brain trust of young collaborators and curators he has begun to assemble. “I don’t even know what their title will be, because I started from the people, not the title,” he said.

That team, all people in their 30s or early 40s, will include an artificial intelligence and robotics specialist, Carol Reiley; jazz bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding; soprano Julia Bullock; composers Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner (of the band the National) and Nicholas Britell (perhaps best known for scoring the film “Moonlight”); flutist Claire Chase; and violinist Pekka Kuusisto. All are genre-breakers.

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“I have a healthy self-confidence,” Salonen said in describing his new partners, “but I’m totally realistic about where I’m at in terms of my craft and my cultural background, what I know and what I don’t know. I think these people will help me greatly in these areas that I don’t know.

“I’m hoping that I can also learn. As you know, the greatest danger at this point of life is thinking, ‘I know this. I know this well. So I’ll just keep doing it until I give up.’ That’s tempting, but I decided to counteract it somehow.”

Salonen hopes this will further serve him to expand his horizons as a composer. He said he will write works for his new orchestra but not on a prescribed schedule. Mainly he needs time to absorb new technologies and techniques.

“There are some emerging technologies that seem useful and exciting,” he said. “New developments in 360-degree audio allow you to place a sonic object specifically in space, and I think there will be all sorts of applications with that.

Also, virtual reality is becoming more practical, he said.

“It would be a fun way to do, say, opera in concert where the sets and costumes would come from VR,” he said. “You’d actually see the singers in real time live and the orchestra on stage. But you’d be in an imagined space. That’s only a couple of years away.”

As a petri dish for all this, San Francisco Symphony has its own particular problems and resources. Silicon Valley has created a shocking social rift in the city between haves and have-nots. The tech world has shown little taste for involvement in the arts or philanthropy.

On the other hand, were Salonen to create a synergy between Silicon Valley and the symphony orchestra, we could see a profound effect not only on music but on the valley’s myopic worldview. Salonen could well be the only artist with that potential, given that he is one of the most sophisticated and musically uncompromising of today’s conductors, with nearly fail-proof antennae for spotting gimmickry. At the same time, he happens to be a lover of science fiction and all things Apple, for whom he has appeared in advertising campaigns.

Even so, large questions loom about the San Francisco Symphony. Tilson Thomas will leave an institution he’s turned into a top-flight ensemble and given a relevant sense of purpose along with a greatly expanded repertoire. The orchestra has lately reached out to a hip younger audience with its sold-out SoundBox series in a black-box space, where drinks are served and where you might experience, as the ad copy promises, “hypnotic metronomes,” “creeping claws and pulsating colors” and sounds ranging from “vampiric film music to avant-garde electronic and bedtime fairy tales.”

But that is not enough. As its old traditional San Francisco patronage makes way for the new, the orchestra is at a crossroads that has signs of desperation. There have been worrisome administrative shake-ups, with an unproven team replacing a much-admired old one.

The biggest danger of all is that the management takes its cues from Silicon Valley and thinks of this grand experiment as a start-up, expecting instant results. Salonen’s success at the L.A. Phil was exactly the opposite. His 17 years here began in 1992 on shaky ground, with riots, an earthquake, an economic recession, a prickly local press and an audience not yet ready for new music.

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It took years to change attitudes and build audiences, and he never would have succeeded without the unwavering support of two exceptional artistic managers, Ernest Fleischmann and Deborah Borda. When money was tight, Fleischmann and Borda found ways to continue, going so far as to use their personal funds to keep the Green Umbrella new music programming afloat.

That the orchestra as a viable institution has thrived for three centuries doesn’t mean that it will for four. But if it is going to, there is little doubt: With the L.A. Phil as the most progressive arts institution anywhere, reaching out into the community, incorporating a multitude of art forms and creating new work, and with the San Francisco Symphony’s new potential for innovation, the next chapter will begin in California.

11:30 a.m. This article was updated with additional details of Salonen’s plans and his interview comments.

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