The Salonen era with the San Francisco Symphony launched online with invigorating Throughline

Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting John Adams’s Sharker Loops with the members of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at the Davies Hall. © Courtesy of the SF Symphony

In the midst of all the turmoil the pandemic has thrown the performing arts into, the artists and organizations have come up with some amazing innovations. In this field of experimentation, Throughline – From Hall to Home, the inauguration of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s tenure as the Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra was a luminous example. 

The hour-long online event, launched on Saturday 14 November and available on-demand, not only provided an inspiring glimpse of things to come, but yielded to an uplifting concert experience. 

In the course of Throughline, five pieces were performed, featuring a different line-up of the SFSO musicians each, alongside guest artists, or Creative Partners. Filmed in the Davies Symphony Hall and on various outdoor and indoor locations in San Francisco and throughout the globe, Throughline provided the online audiences with an appealing audio-visual whole. 

In terms of programming, Throughline stood apart from the traditional scheme of an opening night gala, with its playlist of mostly contemporary music, closing with a world premiere. 

Due to safety measures, the SFSO appeared onstage in various small ensembles, from percussion quartet to string septet. In addition, multi-tracking and socially distanced recording enabled guest performances and the large ensemble needed for Nico Muhly’s title piece Throughline (2020), commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony.

The programme was set in motion with Ellen Reid’s wonderful miniature Fear / Release (2017) for percussion quartet. Scored for (mainly) pitched percussion, including vibraphone, marimba, chorales, plate gongs, triangle and a bass drum, the five-minute piece is clad in dazzling sonorities, evoking a hued, dream-like atmosphere. 

Fear / Release is based on a five-note motif, or rhythmic pattern, echoed back and forth between the instruments, and yielding to a series of intriguing permutations. Fabulously performed by the SFSO percussionists Bryce Leifman, Stan Muncy, Jacob Nissly and Arthur Stroch, the fascinating sonic ambiguity of Fear / Release was realized with sublime virtuosity.

Awarded with the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her opera p r i s m (2018), Reid is one of the most interesting voices in American contemporary music. As aptly demonstrated by Fear / Release, her quest for new sonorities results in the most insightful soundscapes. 

The San Francisco Symphony percussionists perfroming Ellen Reid’s Fear / Release on location in San Francisco. © Kim Huynh

Written some forty years earlier, John Adams’s Shaker Loops (1978) for string septet is one of the most iconic minimalist scores. Its buzzing textures, built upon cascades of rapid oscillations, and quasi-static passages for sustained strings have become a cultural item, cherished by fans across genres. 

Rooted in a modular string quartet Wavemaker (1977), withdrawn by the composer and reworked into a septet with fixed notation, the four-movement Shaker Loops was a breakthrough for Adams, paving the way for the vast symphonic canvases of Common Tones in Simple Time (1979-80/1986). Harmonium (1980-81) and, eventually, Harmonielehre (1985). 

As a part of Throughline, the first movement only was performed by Salonen and the string players of the SFSO. A nine-minute affair, Shaking and Trembling provides a charged opening for Shaker Loops. Initiated by rapid violin tremolos, with pulsating ebb and flow, gradually joined by lower strings in canonic formations à la Steve Reich

Following the build-up, the string fabric ventures through a thrilling series of transformations, before cooling down to a sustained coda, bridging directly into the second movement in a complete performance. 

With Salonen and seven string players of the SFSO, the movement was given a marvellous performance. Clad in translucent clarity and charged with sonic energy, the vibrant textures of Shaking and Trembling unraveled in an organic manner, to a fabuöous effect. Ever admirably detailed, the string textures were brought to life with dedication and love. 

Written as a part of the orchestra’s CURRENTS series, Kev Choice’s Movements (2020) is a kaleidoscopic reflections of various activities, or movements, currently taking place in the Bay Area communities. As manifested in its title, the song is built upon ambiguities, both musical and verbal, commenting on the multifariousness of our contemporary lives. 

Captivatingly performed by Choice, featuring AÏMA the DRMR and the San Francisco Symphony musicians, Movements was a captivating fusion of Hip Hop idioms and orchestral sonorities. 

The opening allegro con brio movement from Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 (1810-11) was the only foray outside contemporary music included in Throughline. Nicknamed Serioso, the F minor quartet is something of an enigma. Composed without commission, the autograph manuscript lingered in the composer’s drawer for five years, before the score was finally published in 1816. 

According to Beethoven, ”the Quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public.” In terms of its musical architecture, the F minor quartet is a condensed piece, looking forward to Beethoven’s late music. 

The allegro con brio sets off with an intense, agitated motif, contrasted by a more lyrical second subject. The thematic material is developed in quick, almost impatient manner, giving rise to an incessant tension, running through the movement, from the fervent opening statement to the brief coda. 

A compelling performance by David Chernyavsky, David Kim, Anne Pinsker and Chen Zhao, this brief visit to the Beethoven realm was a fine nod the the composer’s 250th anniversary year. 

Closing the programme, the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s Throughline (2020) for soloists and large ensemble was heard. Cast in thirteen short movements, or mini-concertos, the twenty-minute score features solo contributions from the Collaborative Partners, Nicholas Britell, Julia Bullock, Clare Chase, Bryce Dessner, Pekka Kuusisto, Carol Reiley and Esperanza Spalding, alongside a total of forty SFSO musicians. 

Nico Muhly conducting the recording sessions for the world premiere of Throughline (2020). © Kristen Loken

Captured in sectional recording sessions from the Davies Hall to Salonen’s summer home six thousand miles away in Southern Finland, Throughline is a case in point of turning the limitations of social distancing into creative energy, with invigorating results. 

With a splendid mixture of exquisite post-minimalist tableaux, jazz-tinged, Bachian counterpoint and wondrous vocal contributions by Spalding and Bullock, Muhly’s brilliant score finds unity in diversity, with extraordinary bridging and shared musical items connecting the short movements. 

From jazz vocals to a bass flute solo, Throughline visits a dazzling variety of sonorities. From electric guitar to operatic voice, the musical line-up is joyfully diverse, yet ever logical in its transformations from one idiom to another. 

At the core of Throughline lies Three Fast Lines, a movement based on nine bars of music written by Muhly and completed by Artificial Intelligence. Often considered an artistic taboo, music created by algorithms can yield to interesting results, depending on its context. As a part of Throughline, the AI section is embedded within the musical flow quite naturally, to a thought-provoking effect. 

In the closing movement, Found Objects, Muhly’s luminous orchestral scoring is accompanied by images from Salonen’s summer home. With the Music Director’s movement’s linked to musical events in the score, an impression of distanced conducting arises, befittingly for the circumstances. 

A creative feast, Throughline brought the eponymous opening event to a fulfilling close. Overcoming a myriad of performance limitations, the SFSO and Salonen opening event was a life-affirming experience, paving the way for a thrilling future.   

San Francisco Symphony Orchestra

Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

Nico Muhly, conductor

Nicholas Britell, piano

Julia Bullock, soprano

Clare Chase, flute

Bryce Dessner, electric guitar

Pekka Kuusisto, violin

Carol Reiley, AI 

Esperanza Spalding, bass and vocals 

Ellen Reid: Fear / Release (2017) for percussion quartet

John Adams: Shaking and Trembling from Shaker Loops (1978) for string septet

Kev Choice feat. AÏMA the DRMR: Movements (2020) 

Ludwig van Beethoven: Allegro con brio from String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 (1810-11)

Nico Muhly: Throughline (2020) for soloists and large ensemble

Davies Symphony Hall and various socially distanced recording locations

First released on Saturday 14 November 2020, 7 pm at sfsymphony.org 

© Jari Kallio

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