Esa-Pekka Salonen’s distinctive Sibelius in the first SFS concert after announcing his 2025 departure

United StatesUnited States Sibelius: Lisa Batiashvili (violin), San Francisco Symphony / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 14.3.2024. (HS)

SFS librarian Margo Keiser presents Esa-Pekka Salonen with a bouquet from the musicians © Kristen Loken

Sibelius – ‘Finlandia’; Violin Concerto; Symphony No.1 in E minor

The San Francisco Symphony dropped a bombshell on Thursday morning, headlining its 2024-25 season schedule announcement with the news that Esa-Pekka Salonen would not be coming back as music director after his five-year contract lapses in June 2025. That very afternoon, Salonen took the podium for an all-Sibelius program.

It was an emotional matinee in several aspects, and it culminated in a heartfelt gesture from the musicians of the orchestra. After a sterling performance of the Symphony No.1 in E minor, Salonen stood within the orchestra for the first bows, as he often does. Everyone was grinning at the enthusiastic audience response. Then he stepped back onto the podium, and the entire orchestra stood and clapped for him.

The orchestra’s chief librarian, Margo Kieser, presented him with an enormous colorful bouquet on behalf of the musicians. He had told them of this decision at rehearsal the day before, and it was clear that the conductor and more than a few musicians were close to tears as the applause persisted.

Salonen had lavished his usual arsenal of conductorial expression and precision on music that he absorbed growing up in Finland, all by the composer who put Finnish music on the map.

From the first notes of ‘Finlandia’, perhaps the most familiar of Sibelius’s works, Salonen’s gestures carved pointed contrasts in the tone poem. He used an upswing to coax soft attacks from the low brass and horns on the opening chords, which are often punched by other conductors. This made the staccato response on the following pages by the trumpets stand out sharply. The pace was slow enough for the lyrical sections to feel upbeat and refreshing, and it culminated in a carefully shaped finish.

As strong and thought-provoking as that performance was, it could not help but feel a little mannered. A bit more freedom in expression might have lifted it to even greater heights.

The orchestra fashioned dynamic subtleties in the Violin Concerto that followed, especially on the out-of-the-mists opening chords, and the big moments seethed with energy. Georgian-born German violinist Lisa Batiashvili knows her way around this music. Her wiry tone and stoic sense of rhythm played against her impressive efforts to shade phrasing, and it did not help that she seemed to lag by a hair in the faster, more rhythmic sections. Still, there was enough texture and power in the orchestra’s framing to earn an ovation. There was no encore.

The less often-heard Symphony No.1, written in the same year as ‘Finlandia’, owes a debt to the composer’s fascination with other composers, especially Tchaikovsky and Berlioz. Its form and shape, however, stamp the piece as distinctly Sibelius. Though it lacks the spaciousness and assuredness of the more familiar Nos.2, 5 and 7, the performance raised the roof.

Principal clarinet Carey Bell, deftly supported by timpanist Edward Stephan, got things off to an intoxicating start. The strings and other woodwinds joined in, and the performance took on an air of discovery as each paragraph of music rose and fell. After the first movement picked up pace into an energetic Allegro, the soft-hued Andante achieved its own contrast, the calm of the beginning rising to an almost-savage climax before receding into calm again.

The Scherzo, though never playful, lightened the mood and led to a finale that featured glistening brass chorales, dramatic dance music, string music that propelled the rhythms with gusto and ended with a burst. The brief tongue-in-cheek coda, a few plucks from the strings, found a droll humor that summarized an approach to the whole symphony. It took itself seriously, but Sibelius sneaked in a few subtle winks to make things more interesting.

At the end, as the applause and flowers from the orchestra suggest, there was a sense that they and Salonen had found a closer tie over nearly four seasons. Before he could start his tenure, the pandemic shut down live performances. Two years ago, a work stoppage diverted things again. Only the last season and a half approached anything like normality, and it finally felt like things were coming together.

The programming for 2024-25 has plenty to chew on, and we should savor it while we can. At the very least, this concert demonstrated that something good is happening, even if just for the next fifteen months.

It is not entirely clear why Salonen decided to step down next year. In announcing his decision, he said, ‘I do not share the same goals for the future of the institution as the Board of Governors does’. In a Finnish-language interview, he pointed to budget cuts in the number of subscription concerts, commissions for new music and next year’s planned European tour.

More details will no doubt emerge over time, but for now it seems appropriate that Salonen’s first concert after announcing plans to end his tenure in San Francisco was devoted entirely to the composer who established Finland as the musical juggernaut it became in the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

If Salonen and the San Francisco Symphony have been building their own musical juggernaut, they have a little over a year to see where it goes before history moves on with a new music director.

Harvey Steiman

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