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New music director Salonen brings ‘Silicon Valley’ ingenuity to SF Symphony

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Skimming the superlatives Esa-Pekka Salonen has earned from critics and collaborators, it would be easy to mistake the San Francisco Symphony music director designate for a Silicon Valley tech visionary. “Disrupter,” The New York Times declared when he landed his post. “Technological innovator,” the SF Symphony’s own press release boasts. When I first read his New Yorker profile and participated in the buzz around his appointment, I was reminded of the long-since-gone wonderment I felt in middle school watching Steve Jobs unveil the newest products at Worldwide Developer Conferences. These days, tech conglomerates, corporatized diversity initiatives and languishing nouveau riche Bay Area aristocrats prompt overripe cynicism and mental fatigue. Salonen might just have the right touch to turn things around.

For the past two weekends, in previews of what is to come to the SF Symphony beginning in the 2020-21 season, Salonen has delivered all that critics have anticipated and then some. 

In the first weekend (Feb. 20-22), soprano soloist Julia Bullock sang Benjamin Britten’s “Les Illuminations,” a song cycle composed to excerpts from poetry written under the same title as symbolist Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry collection. These songs turn around one key line: “I alone have the key to this savage parade,” repeated three times through the roughly 20-minute performance. The orchestral song cycle turns out to be an extraordinarily evocative format for the allegorical urban scenes described by Rimbaud (and personally translated from French by Bullock). The fitful tensions of the man in the crowd, and of the passions and calm that are inspired, were wondrously brought out as Bullock responded to the similarly dynamic instrumental soundscape. 

One of eight artists-in-residence handpicked by Salonen, Bullock is curating an April Soundbox (Davies Symphony Hall’s experimental live music venue) program eclectically mixing Nina Simone, Bach and Poulenc. Both Salonen and Bullock’s careers have vibrantly engaged the important question of what classical music is absorbing — and can be willing to absorb — under its auspices. The first weekend’s program demonstrated that boundary-defying thinking sacrifices nothing of the smart programming of more canonical classical composers like Henry Purcell, Benjamin Britten and Maurice Ravel. If anything, an openness to challenging existing notions of classical music can and should be productive for hearing traditionally heralded composers in a new light. Opening with the bold and loud Steven Stucky arrangement of Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary,” the concert announced its own import and gravity before flitting into the dreamy world of vignettes and ephemeralities. It produced a commanding effect.

This past weekend, Salonen and violinist Leila Josefowicz showcased the conductor’s own violin concerto. Once the subject of a stunningly sexy iPad Air ad, it was sandwiched between Beethoven’s “King Stephen Overture” and Nielsen’s “Symphony No. 5.” Beginning with a lengthy but vigorous solo, it engaged the conductor, a glockenspiel, harp, celesta and vibraphone in an energizing conversation with each other leading into the rest of the piece. Particularly unexpected was a long, virtuosic rock drumming sequence, though the rhythmic and instrumental detour produced a surprisingly minimalistic, enticing payoff.

Salonen’s violin concerto encouraged an attunement to the presence and absence of sound and noise. Spatial silences in regions of the orchestra permitted the audience to place the sounds of the orchestra. By programming Salonen’s violin concerto alongside Nielsen’s “Symphony No. 5,” the resonances between Salonen’s use of the drum set and Nielsen’s intense intercourse between the snare drum and the rest of the orchestra surfaced. Musical presence and absence was broached again by the intentional (dis)placements of the snare drum, which traveled from its place amidst the percussion instruments at the back of the orchestra, to the balcony seating stage left, to somewhere out of sight off stage.

I hope I am not projecting when I say that the Bay Area is desperate for convincing ways to bridge the old and the new as we come to terms with the reality that moving fast and breaking things is a troubled mantra. With Salonen at the helm, who knows? Maybe the Symphony, of all institutions, has a bid at stepping into that role. 

Contact Jasmine Liu at jliu98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Jasmine Liu is a senior staff writer and writes for Opinions and Arts & Life.