Esa Pekka Salonen’s Debut as Music Director, San Francisco Symphony Review – Is EDM the Future?

San Frnacisco Symphony, Esa Pekka Salonen, Photo: Brandon Patoc
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As my guest and I headed to Davies Hall to see Esa Pekka Salonen’s Debut with the San Francisco Synmphony, we could not help noticing an unexpected scene.

San Francisco Symphony, Esa Pekka Salonen, Photo: Brandon Patoc

The massive multi-level City Hall parking garage announced “special event” pricing of $25 for the evening of Friday 19th January.  The scantily clad females in SM style influenced bra and bikini bottoms and non-descript males heading towards the  elevators did not appear Davies Hall bound, so your reviewer asked their destination. “EDM” assumed to be a band popular with the younger set, was the reply. The teen agers and young adults   in the lift invited us to join the EDM event but we kept on track for Davies Hall.

San Francisco Symphiny,Esa-Pekka Salonen Concert, Photo: Brandon Patoc

An evening of program music, the musical counterpart of figurative art, was at hand, telling stories from Iceland, Germany and Finland,  the latter the new Director’s homeland. An almost imperceptible transition from silence to sound broken by a masterfully executed crescendo, introduced EPS as Music Director Designate to his immediate constituency in Adele Davies Hall through the medium of Anna Thorvaldsdottir Iceland’s young female composer’s Metacosmos, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic,  in its West Coast premiere. The piece elevated program music to its most abstract and powerful form, representing the intense gravitational pull of the astrophysics space-time “black hole,” through alternative dissonances and glissandos.  A masterful, precisely defined performance of Rikard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra tone poem followed, its introductory passage irrecoverably linked to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 depiction of Civilization’s origin. The evening’s program built to a complementary climax with the performance of Kalevala, Finland’s “ur” national legend expressed by Jan Sibelius Finland’s pre-eminent nation-building composer.

The Symphony’s Future

EPS has recruited a “brain trust of art, community and technology thought leaders to forge the Symphony’s  Bay Area future, hopefully creating a creative flow between the orchestra and its community, extending from the “flow” between the  conductor and the orchestra’s musicians. In the post performance discussion, EPS evocatively portrayed the musical flow as the “way we connect beyond measurable.” He defined it as a “think do feedback loop,” not yet scientifically explainable but will be in the future.

EPS spoke of his continuing affinity with Finland, where he summers. EPS is arguably Finland’s most successful export, outlasting Nokia, a technological shooting star of the mobile phone era until Apple’s Iphone ate its lunch and shrunk a firm that for a brief moment appeared, like Sweden and Estonia’s Skype to be a contender for global firm status. Purchased by Mirosoft, Skype  is now a unit of Microsoft, headquartered in Stanford’s Research park, while a much reduced Nokia keeps a US HQ in Sunnyvale, leveraging a formidable patent portfolio keeping its independent status as a true Finn.

Bridging the Age Gap

San Francisco Symphony, Esa-Pekka Salonen Concert, Photo: Brandon Patoc

Your reviewer noted that many of us in the audience are on in years and asked EPS, “What are you going do to bring in next generations?” In response, EPS focused on his plan to forge a relationship with the tech community, enhancing  the orchestra with artificial advanced and augmented reality technologies. Leaving Davies Hall we were attracted to the Bill Graham Auditorium, emitting  bright light and loud sound from its security staffed doorways, Working our way though the crowd control barriers, empty by that time, we  asked a guard if we could take a look. He waved us in to the flashing geometrically patterned laser  lighted venue, reminiscent of psychedelic of an earlier era, A vast panorama of young people, similar to those we met in the underground parking elevator earlier in the evening filled the floor, many  dancing ot the music while others, especially in the balconies sat and listened, just like in Symphony hall. A very few seconds into the experience, just getting adjusted to the environment, other security staff over-ruled the entry invitation and I was politely asked to leave.

Once outside, I observed  to the tall modestly bearded African American, who had escorted me out,  that the light effects were well beyond the shimmering glass balls of the 1970’s disco era. Responding to a question on the music’s source, he explained that  the source of the music was three DJ’s simultaneously “spinning disks,” from a scaffold platform in front of the hall, while light technicians operated key boards in back of the house, playing off each others actions, achieving  a flow similar in form if not content to the one in Davies Hall. EDM was not a band, or a conductor like EPS, rather it stood for the collective experience of Electronic Dance Music.

San Francisco Sympony, Esa Pekka Salonen, PhotoL Brandon Patoc

Should the Symphony cross the street and engage with EDM? The Symphony’s vertical flow is between musicians and the conductor whereas EDM ‘s  lateral flow is among the DJ’s light technicians, and audience, with no conductor, The Symphony’s Black Box already offers an attenuated version  of light playing off sound. Yet Black Box standees don’t move, let alone dance. Ballet performers dance to classical compositions. Why not the Symphony’s audience?

To find out what the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Esa Pekka Salonen is presenting, go to the SFSymphony website


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