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

Feb 1, 2024

Esa-Pekka Salonen previews his upcoming concerts
Phillippa Cole: One of your first concerts this spring is Scriabin’s Prometheus and Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, with Gerald Finley and Michelle DeYoung. You’ve spoken some about Prometheus, The Poem of Fire but can you tell us about Bluebeard and these two soloists?
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Bluebeard’s Castle is one of Bartók’s best works. And when I say that it’s very high praise indeed, because Bartók is one of my favorite composers. It’s sort of a perfect one-hour, musical theater piece that tells a bloodcurdling story with a very rich and exciting musical language. I deeply love that piece.
I have performed it with Michelle in a different context before, and also with Gerald, but this is the first time we’ll do it all together. This will also be Gerald’s debut with the San Francisco Symphony.
Also in March, the Orchestra goes on a short tour to Southern California, with dates in Costa Mesa, Palm Desert, and Walt Disney Hall in LA. What is the orchestra playing?
First of all, it’s super exciting for me to take my new band to Walt Disney Concert Hall to show what we can do. And especially in a Sibelius-only program, which is a bit of an obvious thing to do for a Finnish conductor, but something I haven’t done yet. What is especially inspiring is that we’re going to be collaborating with the great Georgian-German violinist Lisa Batiashvili in Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. We’ve played many concerts together in the past and I’m greatly looking forward to this.
We have several continuing collaborations this season, one of which is with Alonzo King and his wonderful LINES Ballet. What’s it like to work with them again on the production of Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose in June?
I’m very happy to have found in Alonzo King and his LINES Ballet a partner in this city with whom I’m envisioning a long-term collaboration for years to come. Alonzo is a master choreographer with a very unusual sensitivity towards music. His dancers are amazing and somehow everything is organically connected to the flow of the music. This is something that very few choreographers have naturally, and Alonzo just has it. I’m very excited about the prospect of creating a ballet to Ravel’s beautiful Mother Goose, which is one of the most perfect compositions I know. With very few notes, Ravel creates a perfect universe where everything is exactly as everything should be, like a better world. It’s almost magic.
On the same program, we collaborate with Peter Sellars on Schoenberg’s Erwartung. This is the third project the Symphony has partnered on with Peter in the past few years. What should we know about this production?
Erwartung is a monodrama for a soprano and orchestra, written to text by Marie Pappenheim. It’s kind of a mysterious piece because we don’t quite know what’s going on. A woman is seeking something, and we kind of understand that she’s fleeing. She’s trying to get out of trouble, but she never explains what exactly happened and why she’s running away. And so it basically leaves the field wide open for interpretation.
That’s where Peter Sellars comes in. He is a real magician in terms of finding explanations to open questions and imagining a scenario or a narrative based on completely abstract things. Knowing Peter, there’s going to be a contemporary connotation and somehow what is happening to this person will be connected to world events.
One of the longest, most fruitful collaborations you’ve had is with Yefim Bronfman. In June, you’re conducting Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto, which you’ve never done before together. How do you and he approach new repertoire?
Fima Bronfman is like a brother to me. We have played countless concerts together. We have made recordings. We have toured with various orchestras around the globe. And we have shared many a bottle of wine and had some great meals around the planet. And musically speaking, there’s this bond that is very rare for me, like an almost telepathic link. With Fima, I kind of always know what he’s going to do next before it happens. So it’s always rewarding.  
We started to think about doing something that we never have done together and realized that the Schumann Piano Concerto, which is one of the great jewels of the Romantic piano and orchestra repertoire, is something we have never played together.  
One new artist working with the Orchestra in June is the very talented up-and-coming cellist, Sheku Kanneh-Mason. I don’t believe you’ve worked with him before?
Sheku is one of the great stars of his generation. Incredible player, technically, musically, but beyond that, he has this kind of personal magnetism and charisma. He comes in, sits down, and starts playing, and all of a sudden you get the feeling that he’s playing to you. It’s mysterious, but he has this gift.
We have two major symphonies in June, Mahler’s Third and Bruckner’s Fourth. What’s your relationship to those two pieces?
Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony and Mahler’s Third Symphony have a special place in my repertoire in the sense that both marked a very important turning point in my life.
The first one was the Bruckner. I was a little boy and my dad had just bought his first-ever stereo system. I came back from school and he hadn’t installed it yet properly, so the loudspeakers were on the carpet in in our living room.
I turned it on and managed to find a channel that was playing music. I didn’t know what it was, but I thought, this is the best thing I’ve ever heard in my life.
I remember that moment very vividly, lying on the living room carpet with the loudspeakers a few feet away on both sides. I was wallowing in this sound, the richness of the orchestration and the amazing use of brass.
I waited until the end of it and the announcer said it was Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. I went straight to my mom and said that I wanted to have an LP of this symphony. And she came back with Erich Leinsdorf’s recording of it with the Boston Symphony, which I listened to until the record basically disintegrated into powder. I think today that maybe I wouldn’t have become a musician without that powerful and amazing experience.
The story of Mahler Three is somewhat different. It happened a lot later when I was 25 and was a composer who conducted a little bit just to make a living. I didn’t think I would be a conductor, full-time, ever. And then a young conductor called Michael Tilson Thomas was supposed to conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra in Mahler’s Third Symphony and I think he had a hand injury or something and had to cancel only a few days before the show.
So, the Philharmonia desperately started calling everybody on the planet and nobody was free. My manager called me early one morning and said that the Philharmonia would like me to conduct Mahler’s Third. I thought he was joking and hung up.
He called again a couple of hours later and said that he wasn’t joking. I had never heard Mahler Three. I knew there was such a piece for sure, but I had never seen the score. I said, look, give me an hour, and went and got the score from the Finnish Radio Symphony library and looked at it. I thought, okay, I’ll do this. Nothing to lose. I thought, if it goes well, fine. If it doesn’t, at least I can tell my grandchildren that I conducted the Philharmonia in the Royal Festival Hall.
I don’t think I slept much after that point. I went to London and conducted the piece and it went well and I enjoyed myself. The following day I woke up and realized that I was a conductor, which was kind of bewildering because I really was the same guy as I was five days earlier. No better, no worse. But all of a sudden, I was a little famous. And that got my international conducting career started. So, Mahler Three has a special place in my memory and my heart. And also, in a funny way, it connects me with Michael from early on. We both find this very amusing that this happened since I eventually took over after him here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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