Don’t let Esa-Pekka Salonen go!

When I heard the news last week that Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, had announced he would step down as music director of the San Francisco Symphony next year, I was so distraught by the news, I’ll admit it: I wept. I love classical music and Esa-Pekka that much. He was only four years into what we (subscribers and supporters of the SFS) all saw as a golden tenure, the only music director who could have possibly replaced our beloved music director laureate, Michael Tilson Thomas, who concluded his longtime tenure in 2020 (and, now battling cancer, recently was forced to permanently step down from conducting the SFS). We were thrilled by the 2018 Esa-Pekka appointment. Over the moon. And our enthusiasm has not subsided.

“I do not share the same goals for the future of the institution as the Board of Governors does,” Salonen stated in a New York Times article, which I’d sunk into a chair to read and reread, so desperate for more information and commiseration that I read all 100 of the comments that had rapidly accrued. All of them echoed what I felt. This was a blow, a terrible loss, for San Francisco Symphony and the classical-music world at large. A huge loss for supporters and subscribers of the San Francisco Symphony. (I’m approaching 20 years as a subscriber.) We loved Esa-Pekka’s energy, his commitment to classical music not just of the past but of the future, and his deep talent, as maestro, a composer, a music director. To lose such a treasure is a blow for San Francisco that can’t be underestimated. For the Board of Governors to continue down a treacherous, cost-cutting path is to make a mistake that will reverberate for years — even decades — to come.

I feel the tiniest bit better this morning, reading an open letter from the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony, urging the Board of Governors to take steps to retain Salonen as Music Director and to reverse planned cuts to programming, touring, and education. To you, the Board of Governors of the San Francisco Symphony, particularly chief executive Matthew Spivey and board chair Priscilla Geeslin, I beg you/encourage you/warn you to take this open letter and its request seriously. Just yesterday in the mail, I received a subscription packet for the 2024-25 season (wow, terrible timing on your part, unbelievably tone-deaf). Gotta say, today I feel deeply ambivalent about resubscribing. That you’re willing to toss away a treasure of a music director — and whom do you expect to find that could possibly fill his shoes? Don’t think for a moment that subscribers will simply shrug and say, “Oh well! A relative unknown or second-class music director (at a great price!) will do just fine.” Ironically one of the reasons you cite for budget-cutting (“a decrease in subscriptions in recent years”) will prove to be a much bigger problem once Esa-Pekka Salonen has departed. He is the reason we are excited about, and proud of, supporting the San Francisco Symphony. And the world-class musicians, of course.

Which is why the following letter, from said world-class musicians, is doubly important:

We are deeply saddened by the news that Esa-Pekka Salonen will not be returning as Music Director as a result of the Board of Governors’ lack of investment in the future of the Symphony. The decision to cut innovative programming and cancel touring, as well as the failure to competitively invest in the Symphony’s musicians, has led to the departure of a world-class Maestro and raises serious questions about the future of the Symphony.

We joined the San Francisco Symphony because of this orchestra’s cutting edge reputation and its commitment to musical excellence. Esa-Pekka is a visionary artist and a force for the kind of innovation and experimentation our orchestra needs going forward. There were many groundbreaking things that he had hoped to do in San Francisco, and we were looking forward to going on that journey with him. Esa-Pekka’s decision not to renew his contract is a great loss not only for the musicians and the organization, but for our city and our community.

While we will continue to create the best possible musical experiences for our audiences, it is critical that the Board and the public understand that this requires financial investment in our artistic product. It is hard to reconcile these draconian cuts with the reality that the Symphony has one of the largest endowments of its kind in the country and attendance now exceeds pre-pandemic levels. We remain the only Symphony among our peer orchestras that has not had our compensation restored to pre-COVID levels. While other world-class orchestras have resumed touring, our tours have been canceled for the foreseeable future. These misguided cuts threaten the future of our orchestra and will make it more difficult to attract and retain top talent, grow our audiences, and ensure we remain a world-class orchestra.

The letter closes with the following:

We care deeply about the San Francisco Symphony and we are incredibly grateful for the support we have received from our patrons, subscribers, and donors. We call on the administration to reverse course so that we can keep producing innovative and compelling programming for years to come and ensure that San Francisco has a world-class orchestra that continues to enrich the community.

As my readers know, classical music means the world to me. It’s my sanctuary, my happy place. Each performance I attend at the San Francisco Symphony feels like a vacation day, something to celebrate. So I will join the San Francisco Symphony musicians in asking you, Board of Governors, to heed the musicians’ requests, and, most importantly to the Symphony’s subscribers, don’t let Esa-Pekka Salonen go.

2 thoughts on “Don’t let Esa-Pekka Salonen go!”

  1. Oh, Terez, I feel your sense of loss and dismay! You and the San Francisco Symphony so eloquently express this to the public.

    If you’ve not done so already, I hope you will share your voice and view through letters directly to Matthew Spivey Priscilla Geeslin. Perhaps to local newspaper editors as well. There is power in this… both to those who would read your message and be inspired to take up the call, and for you as well, knowing you did all you could.

    I hope the public will respond. I hope the board will respond favorably. I hope you can enjoy many years of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s leadership.

    • Thank you so much for this wonderful and supportive reply, Annette! Yes, I’ve sent an email to the SF Symphony, including CCs to administrators whose emails I could find. I think it’s a good idea to print it out and mail it directly to Matthew S and Priscilla G. And yes to local newspaper editors. It is indeed a powerful feeling to say “there, I did all that I myself could do.” And then, LOL, I have to let it go, and accept that I can’t change the world, in the end.

      Nice to have this platform to shout out my feelings. Nice to have readers respond. xoxo!


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