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Big Changes Are Coming to California’s Classical Music Scene

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Big Changes Are Coming to California’s Classical Music Scene

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It’s a season of change for classical music in California.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, the revered conductor and composer, announced on Thursday that he would step down as musical director of the San Francisco Symphony next year when his contract expires. Salonen, 65, has been a leading force in trying to redefine the modern symphony orchestra.

Just the day before, James Conlon, music director of the Los Angeles Opera, said that he would step down in 2026. In his nearly 20 years on the job, Conlon, 74, has led more performances of the opera company than any other conductor.

The departures do not appear to be connected. Salonen had a rift with his orchestra’s board, and Conlon said he was ready for his next chapter.

But they’re serious losses nonetheless, as California’s classical music scene struggles to rebuild in-person audiences. And they are not the only ones.

The most prominent impending departure of all is that of Gustavo Dudamel, who will leave the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the New York Philharmonic in 2026.

Dudamel, who came to L.A. in 2007 as a little-known 26-year-old conductor from Venezuela, helped elevate the Philharmonic into one of America’s top orchestras. The announcement last year that he would be moving on was “a strike at the soul” of Los Angeles, my colleagues Adam Nagourney and Javier C. Hernandez wrote. And shortly after Dudamel’s announcement, Chad Smith, the Philharmonic’s chief executive, resigned to take a post running the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

All this upheaval in California has, of course, revived a longstanding coastal rivalry.

“One way to think of life in American classical music is as a seesaw between the coasts,” Daniel J. Wakin, a New York Times Opinion editor, wrote last week. “That plank just rocked upward to the West Coast’s detriment with the announcement of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s departure.” He added that with Dudamel relocating to New York in two years, “the tilt — or at least a potentially juicy rivalry in New York — will be in the East Coast’s favor.”

Still, many people are hopeful that the California orchestras will be able to find suitable replacements for their acclaimed leaders. Dudamel pointed to the Philharmonic’s decades-long history of finding talent and said he was certain it would do so again. “I’m not even zero percent worried — even zero percent,” he told The New York Times.

Conlon, who has said that it was coincidental that he and Dudamel planned to leave the same year, told my colleague Robin Pogrebin that he planned to continue as a guest conductor at the L.A. Opera, and that he wanted to focus on music education, which he believes is necessary to keep developing audiences for classical music. Throughout his tenure, Conlon tried to make opera less intimidating by talking showgoers through each opera’s key moments before performances.

“The most important crisis facing classical music is we’re all fighting for an audience,” Conlon told Robin, adding that he “can be very persuasive in enticing people who feel afraid of classical music not to be inhibited by these big buildings that look like fortresses.”



What great books should we add to our California reading list? Tell us at CAtoday@nytimes.com. Please include your full name and the city in which you live.


As if in a sequence from “Grey’s Anatomy,” Erika Amundson and Eli Newell said “I do” and then, within minutes, were rushing to a hospital in the back of an ambulance.

The wedding ceremony, held last May in Los Angeles, had concluded and the couple had just returned to the bridal suite when Newell collapsed. Friends assumed Newell was overwhelmed, but Amundson, who was about to graduate from the U.S.C. Keck School of Medicine, saw signs of something serious. A few hours later, Newell underwent open-heart surgery for a tear in his aorta.

It was a dramatic start to Newell and Amundson’s marriage, but it drew them closer. They had met in September 2014 at a theater in L.A. where Newell co-hosted a live dating show. Amundson, who was then working at a Hollywood studio, was recruited as a contestant. The chemistry between host and contestant was instant, and soon they began dating. By November the two were a couple. Newell proposed in December 2021.

After Newell’s surgery, the couple spent their honeymoon on the couch while he recovered. But that summer, they decided they needed a do-over.

Last month, the couple held another ceremony in front of most of the guests who attended their first ceremony. If there had been any doubts before, this time the pledge was easy — through sickness and through health.

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