Last weekend Esa-Pekka Salonen finished his first season as San Francisco Symphony's new Music Director after a one-year-plus delay due to the COVID pandemic. The orchestra and its support staff have been heroic over the last year, somehow managing to be flexible and vigilantly safe, while offering some amazing concerts with music and composers new to San Francisco.
The final concert was for three large orchestral pieces, which meant that all my favorite players were onstage, including principal viola Jonathan Vinocour above. The evening started with Steven Stucky's Radical Light, commissioned by Salonen and the LA Philharmonic in 2008 for a Sibelius festival. The 20-minute piece started ascetically and I was afraid it would be stuck there, but about halfway through the scoring blossomed and the piece turned into a thoroughly absorbing work.
It was totally upstaged, though, by Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson giving the SF Symphony debut of John Adams's 2018 piano concerto with the whimsical title, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?.
The work is frenetic and manic in the extreme, sounding a bit like honky-tonk piano mixed with heavy metal rock performed by an acoustic orchestra. There is a lovely oasis of calm in the second movement, but this is one of Adams's more hard-driving works, with constantly changing time signatures for both pianist and orchestra, which sounded hellishly difficult to perform and terribly exciting to hear. No wonder Ólafsson and Salonen fell into each other's arms at the end of the performance in what looked like exhausted relief.
The tall, nerdy-looking, 38-year-old pianist Víkingur Ólafsson was an absolute wonder at the keyboard, and the composer John Adams came onstage to congratulate him at the finale.
After intermission, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Sibelius's Symphony No. 5. The performance wasn't quite up to the perfect standard of fellow Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki with this same orchestra back in 2015, but it was pretty close, and there were transitional moments in the performance which were purely magical.