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Symphony wrap-up

by Philip Campbell

Esa-Pekka Salonen was named Music Director Designate of the San Francisco Symphony. Photo: Andrew Eccles
Esa-Pekka Salonen was named Music Director Designate of the San Francisco Symphony. Photo: Andrew Eccles  

Looking back at the San Francisco Symphony's 2018-19 season so far, it is hard to find many highlights that could outshine the announcement early in December of a new Music Director to replace Michael Tilson Thomas when he steps down in 2020. SFS administration and the search committee held their cards close, so the sudden naming of Esa-Pekka Salonen was all the more surprising. The appointment itself took little time to digest. Upon reflection, it seemed self-evident. Salonen is universally admired and adventurous, very much in the MTT mold, and a talented composer as well. We just didn't know he was available.

He received the title Music Director Designate immediately, and SFS audiences will get a chance to see him in action this coming Jan. 18-20, when he takes the podium for concerts featuring a West Coast premiere, R. Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra," and "Four Legends from the Kalevala" by Sibelius.

Salonen replaces Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, who had to postpone her SFS debut due to the birth of her first child. He will also return in the 2019-20 season to conduct at least two weeks of concerts before beginning full-time in 2020. MTT's next and final season will, rightfully, be all about him. It should be spectacular; 25 years constitute an historic legacy, and we can expect the kind of classy celebration the SFS is so good at.

From now until then, we are hardly calling MTT a lame duck, two words that simply don't belong in a sentence with his name. Since September, fearless leader has already helmed a two-week Stravinsky Festival, conducted his own deeply moving "From the Diary of Anne Frank" with luminous soprano Isabel Leonard narrating, and led the orchestra and award-winning SFS Chorus in a performance of Beethoven's Ninth in honor of the 70th anniversary of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

There have been some equally impressive evenings spent at Davies Symphony Hall this year with guest conductors and artists, notably Manfred Honeck conducting Dvorak's exciting Eighth Symphony, with Norwegian cellist Truls Mork making his long-overdue SFS debut playing Prokofiev's Sinfonia concertante.

Young violin virtuoso and YouTube sensation Ray Chen returned to DSH with conductor Cristian Macelaru making his SFS debut, conducting the SFS co-commission & world premiere of Kevin Puts' evocative Suite from his opera "Silent Night."


Gil Shaham will play the Prokofiev First Violin Concerto in February. Photo: Luke Ratray  

Piano superstar and bold fashionista Yuja Wang said yes to the dress one more time when she tore through Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in the middle of September. Japanese-born violinist Karen Gomyo made her SFS debut in November with a searing account of Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1. Young Czech conductor Jakub Hrusa made a second appearance with the SFS after his memorable debut the year before. More than a few thought he was deservedly in the running for the Music Director's job.

Looking forward to the new year, more guest conductors will make a special beginning in January, with New York Philharmonic Music Director Jaap van Zweden conducting Mozart and Bruckner mid-month, and Resident Conductor of the SFS and Music Director of the SFS Youth Orchestra Christian Reif leading Prokofiev's galvanic Symphony No. 5 Jan. 24-26. Full of the composer's sweeping melodies and tangy harmonies, the Fifth is an emotional workout and modern masterpiece. Revered SFS Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt closes the month with Beethoven's Sixth "Pastoral" Symphony and Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3, "Scottish." The maestro has been making an annual return to DSH since his tenure as Music Director, 1985-95. He never seems to get older, which is most encouraging to longtime admirers.

MTT is back on the podium in February with a favorite colleague, Gil Shaham, essaying some more Prokofiev with the boldly contrasted moods of the First Violin Concerto. The program concludes with Tchaikovsky's thrillingly dramatic Fourth Symphony.

Another violin superstar, Christian Tetzlaff joins MTT in March for Mozart's Concerto No. 3. The concert includes Ravel's charming "Le Tombeau de Couperin" and Sibelius' richly melodic Symphony No. 2.

Later in the season MTT conducts music of Debussy with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Women of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Ragnar Bohlin, director. In May and June he leads two concerts devoted to Mahler's Symphonies 7 & 9. We will preview more as the dates approach, but fans of Mahler and MTT's extraordinary interpretations should make plans soon. We have our resident world-renowned expert in charge for one more season, 2019-20.


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