These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you’ll hear in the concert hall.

Sep 15, 2023

Pleasure Principle
Esa-Pekka Salonen Previews the SF Symphony’s Fall Season

“We have put together a season that has something for everyone. Every concept is very rich.”

Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen’s fall concerts with the San Francisco Symphony are filled with new works, exciting collaborations, and singular events like the California Festival: A Celebration of New Music. Chief Artistic Planning Officer Phillippa Cole spoke with Salonen about what to expect this fall.
Phillippa Cole: Thinking about the season in general, what are you most looking forward to? What are you excited about?
Esa-Pekka Salonen: The main principle in putting this season together is that it’s not necessarily thematic. It's certainly not ideological. It's not focusing on any particular style or period or composer. I would say it's the pleasure principle. We have put together a season that has something for everyone. Every concept is very rich. But every concert is going to be exciting and entertaining in the best sense of the word.
We start the season with a program featuring Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony along with Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with Leonidis Kavakos. Tell us about working with Leonidas.
I met Leonidas Kavakos for the first time many, many years ago when he came to the Swedish Radio Orchestra to play the Sibelius Violin Concerto with me. He was this young guy and had this sort of aura of being somebody carefree and just happy. When he started playing, we realized from the first phrase that this is an extraordinary talent, not only the way he handles the violin but also the narrative. Every note tells a story. He's unable to play a phrase without putting a powerful expression in it. And he still has that gift, obviously.
Am I right in saying you haven't conducted An Alpine Symphony before?
I used to dislike it intensely when I was younger. I thought it was sort of cheap pictorial postcard kind of music. Fast-forward a few decades, I just love the piece. It's so monumental and rich in colors and expression. And ok, it's not necessarily the deepest composition that deals with the greatest issues in the universe but it's a lot of fun. I'm really looking forward to learning and conducting it.
Another violinist coming this fall is Collaborative Partner Pekka Kuusisto, who will be performing Jesper Nordin’s new violin concerto, Convergence [an SF Symphony commission]. Can you talk a little bit about the kind of player Pekka is and how Jesper incorporates technology into his music?
Pekka Kuusisto is one of the most amazing musicians I've ever come across. He is, of course, a very well-known violin soloist, but he's also a composer and a conductor. He's an improviser like no other classical musician I know. There is a spirit of adventure and exploration in him.
Jesper Nordin has this kind of interesting dichotomy: He's a modern composer. He uses technology and the modern tools of composition, but he also has this sort of anchor in folk music. The results are very fascinating and original.
Jesper has developed an interface kind of app called Reactional Music, which basically allows Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) information to be controlled with almost anything. In the case of the violin concerto, the MIDI input is controlled by motion detectors. What this means in real terms is that a motion can be translated into sound or it can be translated into distribution of sound. So, if I do this [gestures], the sound moves that way.
I premiered a previous large-scale orchestral work of Jesper’s in Stockholm at the Baltic Sea Festival, where I had two motion detectors that I was using during the performance. The only problem was that I had no free hand to turn the page, so I had an assistant to turn the pages for me! I'm sure there'll be some challenges ahead.
We also have the world premiere of Anders Hillborg’s new piano concerto for Emanuel Ax (another Symphony commission). What might we expect from Anders’s music?
Anders and I have collaborated for decades, and it's been a fascinating journey for me to watch his progress and development as a composer and the kind of choices he has made. He's still the same kind of open, alert, curious person he was when we first met almost 50 years ago. And when Anders teams up with somebody like Emanuel Ax, I think we should expect something highly exceptional and deeply moving and exciting.
Tell us about the California Festival: A Celebration of New Music in November. What will we be hearing?
The California Festival is something that we [Salonen, LA Phil Music Director Gustavo Dudamel, and San Diego Symphony Music Director Rafael Payare] have been thinking about for at least five years. The whole concept is about celebrating the forward-looking musical culture in this state and the spirit of collaboration—we are not competing; we are all in the same boat.
We will be presenting music that has been written in the last five years or so, combined with some established works from the canon. We are performing a fantastic new organ concerto by Gabriella Smith with James McVinnie as the soloist, and we are also premiering a piece by Jens Ibsen called Drowned in Light. It features a very prominent electric guitar part. The third new work we are performing is my piece Kínēma, which is a piece for clarinet and string orchestra based on a film score I wrote a couple of years ago.
One of the anchors of the California Festival’s second week is Stravinsky’s Les noces, in Steven Stucky’s orchestration. Tell us a little bit about your history with Steven Stucky.
The late, great composer Steven Stucky (1949–2016) was my composer in residence in LA for many, many years. We became very close good friends and I still miss him every day. I remember a conversation we had once about Les noces, which is one of Stravinsky's absolutely best pieces. Stravinsky was having great trouble in in finalizing the form and the instrumentation of this piece, so he made three versions of it. And the version we know best today is the one for four pianos and percussion. However, I felt that there was something about the music that could use the full color palette of a modern symphony orchestra, and also the dynamic range. Steve got really fascinated by this idea and the result is his version of Stravinsky’s Les noces. He hasn’t changed a note, but it has got this sort of range of color and especially dynamics that you can't get out of only pianos and percussion. I haven't conducted it in many years and I'm eagerly anticipating getting back to this fabulous score.
We are also collaborating with an animator, Hillary Leben, who is based in Chicago. She made very funny and entertaining and enlightening animations for Beethoven's Creatures of Prometheus, which we performed last year. I'm greatly looking forward to this collaboration.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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