This seems to be a first: The San Francisco Symphony is threatening to ban a regular attendee who held up a profane sign at a concert, written in Finnish, to protest the impending departure of musical director Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Maybe you haven’t been following the upper-crust drama surrounding San Francisco Symphony losing their musical director Esa-Pekka Salonen over what seems to be some budgetary infighting. Would the story interest you more if audience members were holding up vulgar, curse-word signs at symphonic concerts to protest the departure of the acclaimed and highly respected Finnish-born conductor?    

Salonen is still the conductor and musical director for the remainder of his contract, which runs into 2025. But a new report in the Chronicle describes a June 21 concert with a significant amount of grassroots patron backlash directed at the SF Symphony Board of Directors. The Chron notes that “Musicians and patrons have voiced concerns over the symphony’s direction and management through fliers and leaflets distributed inside and outside the concert hall.”

Above we see one of them, in which one woman in the audience is holding a sign that says “Fuck the Board,” per retired Chronicle classical music critic, Joshua Kosman. And the Chronicle adds that the woman holding the sign has been threatened with being banned from the concert hall in the wake of this frankly very amusing incident.

“SF Symphony patrons tonight with a message of support in Finnish for Esa-Pekka Salonen,” Kosman posted to Twitter/X. “Naively, I imagined this must read ‘Please Stay.’ Google Translate informs me it means ‘Fuck the Board.’”

Image: Google Translate

For whatever it’s worth, SFist tried translating the same message and we got the result “Damn the Board.” Either way, the sentiment seems similar enough.

And that very Board of Directors seems to have noticed, and sent the woman a sternly worded letter. “Displaying of any signage inside Davies Symphony Hall is not permitted,” SF Symphony’s senior director of operations Andrew Dubowski said in the letter. “Should this conduct occur again, you will be subject to further disciplinary action, up to and including removal from Davies Symphony Hall and/or suspension of privileges to enter and attend activities of the San Francisco Symphony.”

In fairness, social media posts indicate there has been some previous holding up of signs in the audience in support of Salonen. But admittedly, the other signs are much less salty, and simply say things like “Stay.”

The Chronicle hunted the woman down. She is Oakland resident Laura Leibowitz, and she’s been attending the SF Symphony regularly since 1991. And she does not seem remorseful about being the troublemaker behind this particular dust-up.

“The problem with ‘Stay’ is that’s not really an option for Esa-Pekka. The board is preventing him from realizing his artistic vision, so he is moving on,” Leibowitz told the Chronicle. “I wanted to put the blame where it properly lies, with a spin of cleverness. I wanted to make sure it was clear.”

This silly story may even stay in the headlines even longer. Leibowitz says she’s reached out to the ACLU, and if that goes somewhere, she could find herself being something of a sympathetic cult-hero figure.

Moreover, these messy fan protests are likely to continue. According to the SF Symphony’s calendar, Esa-Pekka Salonen is scheduled to still be conducting performances through June 14, 2025.  

Related: SF Symphony Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen Is Parting Ways With the Orchestra, Possibly Over Finances [SFist]

Image: The conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the New York Philharmonic in Beethoven's "Symphony No 3" at David Geffen Hall on Wednesday night, April 4, 2018. (Photo by Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images)