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San Francisco Symphony music director Esa-Pekka Salonen resigns

The San Francisco Symphony announced Thursday the resignation of its music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The famed Finnish conductor and composer said he plans to leave when his contract expires at the end of the 2024-25 season.

"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 does," Salonen said in a statement shared by his publicist with NPR. "I am sincerely looking forward to the many exciting programs we have planned for my final season as music director, and am proud to continue working with the world-class musicians of the San Francisco Symphony."

San Francisco Symphony board chair Priscilla Geeslin called Salonen's decision "bittersweet" in a press release. "This has been an exciting era for the symphony and we're so grateful for Esa-Pekka's thoughtful leadership and collaborative approach," Geeslin said.

The San Francisco Symphony hired Salonen in 2018, and he began his tenure with the orchestra in the 2020-21 season. Building on the work of his longtime predecessor Michael Tilson Thomas, Salonen solidified the group's reputation as a major force in American classical music during his short directorship.

He brought on a diverse group of artistic advisors including Nico Muhly, Claire Chase and Esperanza Spalding, and mixed classics with innovative programming often fused with technology.

But like many arts organizations, the orchestra has been struggling financially in recent years. It lost millions of projected dollars in income during the Covid pandemic, and had also seen steep declines in subscribers and donations before the shutdown occurred.

The group recently canceled touring and made cuts to its experimental and educational programming.

Still, the orchestra has amassed one of the healthiest endowments in the business. It stood at roughly $315 million in 2023, up from $273 million in 2019.

Longterm symphony violist David Gaudry told NPR he was "saddened and surprised" by the news.

"We've had some inkling that things were not all well between the music director and the board based on the cancellation of our 2025 tour for next September to Europe," Gaudry said. "To do a cancellation of an international tour was kind of a dramatic step. It was unprecedented."

Gaudry expressed both his professional and personal admiration for Salonen. "He's a great musician and just a really nice guy," Gaudry said. He also said he sees the music director's departure as a larger existential problem.

"The fact that we have spent all these decades sort of building up to a nationally recognized arts institution, this particular situation is a real threat to our position in the arts community," Gaudry said.

"It's a terrible development for this organization, for this city, for this entire, musical community," said Joshua Kosman, classical music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. "Esa-Pekka has been, or had promised to become, a force for experimentation, innovation and lively music-making of all kinds. I know he had a lot of plans going forward for things that the orchestra could do. And all of that will now be brought to a close."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.