April 20, 2024

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Esa-Pekka Salonen leaves the San Francisco Symphony

Esa-Pekka Salonen leaves the San Francisco Symphony

Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra since 2020, announced Thursday that he will step down when his contract expires next year, due to disagreements with the orchestra's board of directors.

Salonen, 65, a pioneering conductor who promoted new music and experimented with virtual reality and artificial intelligence, said he no longer saw a way forward.

“I have decided not to continue as music director of the San Francisco Symphony because I do not share the same goals for the future of the institution as the Board of Governors,” he said in a statement. “I am sincerely looking forward to the many exciting programs we have planned for my final season as music director, and I am proud to continue working with the world-class musicians of the San Francisco Symphony.”

Disagreements between conductor and conductor rarely come into public view, and this division is notable because of Salonen's stature: a revered conductor and composer, he was a leading force in efforts to redefine the modern symphony orchestra. In San Francisco, he recruited a team of what he called “collaborating partners” from a variety of genres, and oversaw a steady stream of premieres.

The rift between Salonen and the board appears to have been over cost-cutting efforts, which include reducing the number of concerts and commissions, as well as suspending tours. The orchestra is also seeking unspecified shifts in programming to increase revenue. This approach raised broader questions about whether Salonen could realize his expanded vision for the orchestra. (Salonen declined to comment for this article.)

Matthew Spivey, CEO of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, said in an interview that the orchestra faces different challenges and priorities than it did when Salonen was named the orchestra's music director in 2018. He said the pandemic has exacerbated long-standing budget problems, and there have been “significant financial difficulties.” “. “The pressures on the organization have become impossible to ignore.” The orchestra will need to “evolve in different ways to respond to those pressures,” he said.

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Because of the shift in strategy, management understood Salonen's choice to leave, Spivey said.

“These decisions clearly point the organization in a somewhat different direction than we expected in 2018,” he said. “Given all this, it is understandable that Esa-Pekka will end his term as music director“.

The orchestra's announcement of the final season of Salonen's programs on Thursday did not include any comment from him. He issued a separate statement announcing his departure. He had informed the orchestra's musicians of his decision to leave after Wednesday's rehearsal.

Salonen, who is from Finland, arrived in San Francisco on a mission to shake up the group, saying at one point that there was “the potential for something powerfully transformative to happen here.”

He fed off the creative energy of Silicon Valley, bringing in experts in robotics and artificial intelligence to help reimagine the concert experience. When he was hired, he recruited eight artists including Nico Muhly, Claire Chase, and Esperanza Spalding to serve as collaborative partners.

Although their appointments were a tenet of Salonen's vision, the band announced Thursday that the partnerships will end next June. “The relationships we have built with these artists have a lasting impact, and the symphony will always welcome continued collaboration,” the orchestra said in a statement.

During the pandemic, the orchestra has canceled hundreds of performances and lost millions in expected revenue. Salonen made his debut as an online music director, with the virtual premiere of Muhly's film “Throughline,” a work conceived for the digital medium.

But before the closure, the orchestra was suffering from a budget deficit and a sharp decline in the number of subscribers, which had traditionally been an important source of income. The group has also suffered from high expenses and fundraising problems: the average contribution and number of donors have declined in recent years.

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However, the group has managed to grow its endowment, which is one of the largest in the industry: it totaled about $315 million last year, compared to $273 million in 2019. It has moved forward with exploring the possibility of renewing the Davis Symphony. The hall, its old home.

The return of audiences has given the orchestra, which operates on a budget of about $83 million, a boost in ticket revenue, which is expected to exceed pre-pandemic levels this season. The band has had an attendance rate of 74 percent so far this season, which is slightly higher than it was before the shutdown. But the orchestra is also giving fewer performances: 178 this season compared to 202 in 2018-19.

In a letter obtained by The New York Times, Spivey wrote to the board, orchestra, chorus and staff in January, outlining a series of cuts, including canceling a planned European tour, limiting commissions to no more than five per year and cutting overall spending.

“Absent fundamental changes to our business model and revenue streams, we will sustain a growing, unmanageable deficit in the years ahead,” Spivey wrote. “Given the scale of these challenges, we are examining every aspect of the organization’s activities.”

It is unclear what Salonen will do next. Until his arrival in San Francisco, he seemed uninterested in leading another major orchestra. Prior to that, he was music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 17 years, developing its reputation as one of the country's most innovative orchestras.

His passing represents a huge loss to the California music scene, which will see the departure of other prominent masters in the coming years. Gustavo Dudamel, who leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, is leaving for New York in 2026, and James Conlon announced this week that he will leave his position as music director of the Los Angeles Opera in the same year.

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