Wednesday, December 5, 2018


So a while ago, leaving plenty of time to find a successor, Michael Tilson Thomas announced his retirement from the music directorship of the San Francisco Symphony, as of the end of next season. That would be about a year and a half from now.

So today, still long before the change is due, they announced the next music director. And it will be:

Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Who retired from the Los Angeles Philharmonic a decade ago because he wanted to be relieved of the extra-conductorial burdens of being a music director (fund-raising, administration, community schmoozing) so he could spend more time composing.

So why did he change his mind? According to SFCV's news announcement, it was too juicy a job to refuse.

Well, okay. But I still don't quite get it.

But while this puzzles me more than excites me, it will, I think, be good for SFS on a strategic level.

For one thing, one of MTT's few flaws is that, while he talked a good new-music game, he rarely delivered. Salonen in LA delivered (and his successor there, Dudamel, is keeping it up). We can count on much more varied programming once Salonen arrives. How good a thing that will be depends on what he programs, and that will be affected by factors we can't yet measure.

Then there's the matter of the conductor's ability to set the orchestra's tone, which is a measure of his heft or subjective weight. When MTT arrived, he was 50 years old, a mid-career conductor who was respected and liked but did not, at the time, have a big reputation. But he was coming to an orchestra that was solidly built but didn't have much flash. He was able to put the flash, the extra degree of energy and enthusiasm, in. And after staying for 25 years, longer than any of his predecessors even in what had been a fairly stable job, he has built up a towering reputation and, turning 74 this month, has become one of the leading senior conductors of his time and, more to the point, has remade SFS entirely in his image.

Coming after such a figure is a challenge in itself. ("You replace Dr. Franklin?" asked the Parisians. "I succeed Dr. Franklin," replied Thomas Jefferson. "No-one can replace him.") Salonen, who's 60 and will have just turned 62 when he takes over, and with his successful couple of decades at LA behind him, is enough of a senior and powerful figure that he won't be overhung by MTT's shadow and can proceed on his own pace. But at the same time he's old enough that he probably won't stay more than a decade or so. Meaning that he'll have time to accomplish what he wants without becoming in turn a giant shadow. Like Herbert Blomstedt, whose decade as SFS music director roughly coincided with his sixties, he can leave a solid foundation for a younger successor to build upon after him. Who came after Blomstedt? MTT. So we go on ...

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