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Incoming San Francisco Symphony music director Esa-Pekka Salonen will launch the orchestra in a radical new direction in September, not by asserting his autocratic control, but by sharing his leadership burdens far and wide.
The Finnish-born conductor and composer, the 12th music director to take the helm in the orchestra’s history, announced a new season Tuesday morning from Davies Hall that emphasizes the contributions of eight “Collaborative Partners,” young and mid-career artists and entrepreneurs from across the cultural spectrum who will be involved in planning and performances throughout the season.
Salonen’s collaborators include jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding; composer and arranger of classic, contemporary and pop music Nico Muhly; composer, guitarist and The National rock band co-founder Bryce Dessner; operatic singer and social activist Julia Bullock; artificial intelligence and robotics expert Carol Reiley; pianist, producer and TV and film composer (“HBO’s “Succession,” “Moonlight”) Nicholas Britell; flutist and new music champion Claire Chase and violinist, environmental activist (and fellow Finn) Pekka Kuusisto.
In a statement asserting that he has “never achieved anything on my own,” Salonen explained, “I am looking to create a different kind of framework, and these wonderfully creative people on the team will help me in that process.”
Two weeks of concerts and activities curated by the collaborators will precede the official opening of the 108th season on Sept. 30 with a gala concert performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music as “reimagined” by Salonen and his team of eight.
The season closes nine months later in June 2021, with a two-week “On the Precipice: Music of the Weimar Republic” festival that will feature the U.S. premiere of collaborator Dessner’s Violin Concerto, as interpreted by fellow collaborator Kuusisto, and semi-staged performances of Hindemith’s “Murderer, the Hope of Women” and Kurt Weill’s “The Berlin Requiem” and “The Seven Deadly Sins.”
Season highlights include a three-week, Greek-themed “Myths and Mortals” festival March 5-22, 2021, presenting both a full concert performance of Richard Strauss’ opera “Elektra,” starring soprano Christine Goerke, and the San Francisco premiere of Salonen’s own two-part work “Gemini,” an orchestral riff on the mythical half-brothers Castor and Pollux.
The season is also liberally sprinkled with “Voices of Change” performances that reflect a heightened social consciousness, with a Nov. 12-14 concert set devoted to Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Julia Wolfe’s “Her Story,” commemorating the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage here, paired with a 1930s-era piano concerto by Florence Price, the first African American woman to gain recognition as a composer.
The theme is also carried out in Feb. 4 and 6, 2021, concerts of composer and vocalist Gabriel Kahane’s “emergency shelter intake form,” a song cycle featuring four soloists and a community chorus of singers whose lives have encountered the major social disruption the title references.
The San Francisco Symphony maintains its links to the past, bringing back well-established guest conductors such as Herbert Blomstedt, Juraj Valcuha and, of course, music director emeritus Michael Tilson Thomas, who will conduct four concert sets.
Favorite returning guest soloists include Emanuel Ax, Joshua Bell, Renée Fleming, Chick Corea and Yuja Wang, while the season will also be introducing debut conductors, Seattle’s emeritus music director Ludovic Morlot among them, and first-time solo artists such as tenor Ian Bostridge and bass-baritone Gerald Finley.
Visiting ensembles engaged for the season include the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the fast-rising Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, who has twice before canceled her expected debuts on the S.F. Symphony podium to tend to her maternal duties.
The ever-popular film series with live orchestral accompaniment continues with an intriguing lineup: “Princess Bride,” scored by Mark Knopfler (Nov. 27-28); “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” scored by Tan Dun (Jan. 8-9, 2021); “Skyfall,” scored by Thomas Newman (April 2-3, 2021) and “The Godfather,” scored by Nino Rota (April 16-17, 2021).
Ticket packages for the new season are now on sale at 415-864-6000 or www.sfsymphony.org. Single tickets will go on sale on July 10.