Saturday, February 02, 2019

The Autobiography of Esa-Pekka Salonen

The San Francisco Symphony recently pulled off a dramatic hiring coup, which it announced at a celebratory party at the SoundBox space in Davies Hall last December. They needed to find a new Music Director after Michael Tilson Thomas announced his retirement from the orchestra after leading it for the last 20+ years, and they managed to sign the very famous Finnish composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen who had already turned down that position with the New York Philharmonic and other orchestras around the world over the last decade. For some reason, he changed his mind and will be arriving in San Francisco as Music Director in 2020 for five years. SF Symphony President Sakuroko Fisher and Board member Matt Cohler above looked ecstatic as they were sharing the news to a packed crowd of about 600.

My introduction to the SF Symphony was as a precocious, 16-year-old hitchhiker seeking his fame and fortune in San Francisco, who managed to figure out how to buy a $3 standing room ticket for Seiji Ozawa's first concert as Music Director of the orchestra in 1970. Ozawa announced that he was going to be featuring a lot of music by Haydn and Berlioz, unusual choices, and if memory serves, that first concert featured Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, a Haydn symphony, and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. I returned completely thrilled to my tiny, grimy room at the Granada Hotel on Sutter and Hyde where I was being paid room and board for playing waiter to the senior citizens who were the paying guests.

San Francisco was too rough a place for a 16-year-old without money, but I encountered a few guardian angels, including a woman on Muni who comforted me when I burst into tears, and who told me there were jobs at ski resorts in Lake Tahoe who were always hiring young men. I managed to snag a job as a lift operator at Squaw Valley even though I had never been on skis in my life (and never, ever picked up the skill). An ancillary joy was a radio station out of Reno that broadcast Easy Listening music (think Mantovani and 1,001 Strings) every weekday, all day long, but at night and on the weekends they broadcast classical music in a format that was perfect for a young musical neophyte.

Every evening three hours of prime time would be devoted to a single composer, and the playlist would be a surprisingly wide repertory, from chamber music to symphonies to solo piano to vocal music. And sometimes, just for the hell of it, there would be something like a Bach Week or a Tchaikovsky Week and then we would be offered true, weird and fabulous obscurities. On Saturday mornings, I would sit in a freezing, tiny, wooden hut at the top of a Sierra Nevada mountain ski run listening to Milton Cross give his fabulous narrative introductions before each act of the live Metropolitan Opera broadcast. The rest of that year I was a U.S. National Park gypsy, working in Yosemite as a dishwasher at the Ahwahnee Hotel, desk clerk at Grant's Grove in Sequoia, and General Store clerk at Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley. The only radio frequency that I could receive at all of those locations was this strange classical music station from Reno. Let me tell you, there is nothing quite like being a sensitive, romantic teenager listening to Mahler late at night in a corrugated tin hut in Death Valley.

After making my way literally around the world, I returned to San Francisco four years later, older and abler to survive. I immediately became a standing room regular for both the symphony and the opera, with the two organizations splitting the year into two seasons, opera in the fall, symphony in the winter. Part of the fun of attending the Thursday matinees at the SF Symphony was being one-third the age of most of the other patrons, who were all curious about this unusual young character, so I was invited to a lot of lovely seats and boxes and drinks at the bar, mostly with elderly women and a few gay men who wanted to dispense musical wisdom. Which they did, with real joy, and I gave them delighted energy in return. For the following four decades I have been hearing some of the greatest conductors, soloists, and singers in the world interacting with the hometown band, which itself has been sounding better with each passing year.

Ozawa left in 1977 for Boston even though he and the SF Symphony got along famously, and he was replaced by Edo de Waart (known colloquially as "Edo Divorce" because of his many marriages to female musical artists) who was good and inconsistent and who helped usher the orchestra into its modern incarnation as a full-year powerhouse with its own building, Davies Hall. Unfortunately, I didn't particularly care for the building, still don't, and especially hated that there was no more standing room for the casual and the young/poor. The Davies Hall equivalent is the punishingly hard benches of the Center Terrace, right behind the orchestra, which is a great place to watch a conductor and orchestra up-close, though it can get way unbalanced when the percussion and brass build a wall of sound in the back of the orchestra, and soloists at the front of the stage easily get lost altogether.

De Waart was replaced by Herbert Blomstedt in 1985 for a decade. Blomstedt turned the ensemble into an authentically world-class orchestra, but his musical taste was so deeply conservative and his tempos so langorous that I didn't find myself attending very many concerts he conducted. Oddly enough, both de Waart and Blomstedt have become two of my favorite guest conductors in their old age because you don't have to hear them all the time, and they have gotten deeper and better at their favorite music over the years. I am expecting to have the same feelings towards Michael Tilson Thomas once he leaves.

The most evocative statement Esa-Pekka Salonen made at the press briefing was how much he loved the San Francisco Symphony itself. "You click with certain groups and not with others, and with this orchestra, we felt it immediately," is my paraphrase. One of the interviewers at the press announcement was violinist Melissa Kleinbart who was an orchestra representative on the Music Director search committee, and she seemed deeply happy about the appointment. In a vote of who the musicians wanted as Music Director, the top, unattainable person they listed was Salonen.

Salonen conducted an inaugural concert in January when a guest conductor dropped out because of pregnancy. He kept some of the program, Sibelius' early tone poem, Four Legends from the Kalevela, and added Strauss's early tone poem, Also Sprach Zarathustra along with the West Coast premiere of METACOSMOS by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Though I like a lot of Sibelius and Strauss, I don't care for either of these pieces except for The Swan of Tuonela movement in the Sibelius and the 2001: A Space Odyssey opening in the Strauss. The Icelandic piece was fine and spectral, but not something I particularly want to hear again. The audience was ecstatic at the buzz of a new Music Director, which was fine, but I've heard him conduct twice and am still waiting for the euphoric moment of, "Oh, that's what it's supposed to sound like!"

Salonen's major legacy at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he was Music Director for almost 20 years in the 1990s and Oughts, was his advocacy for the music of our time. Tilson Thomas did the same for quite a while, and then he mostly stopped. I'm looking forward to hearing what new musical energy Salonen brings into our lives. And finally, I must quote: "About six weeks ago Gertrude Stein said, it does not look to me as if you were ever going to write that autobiography. You know what I am going to do. I am going to write it for you."


Krissy Keefer said...

That is a beautiful story Michael! Thank you...and loved your determination and grit as a young

Rachel said...

Lovely, lovely, Michael.
So glad you landed in San Francisco.
Well done!