The 2006 Honorees

By Alan Rich

Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1992, the 47-year old Finn is also a notable composer. Both he and the orchestra were thrust into the spotlight three years ago by the successful opening of the new Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry.

Esa-Pekka Salonen strides briskly to the Los Angeles Philharmonic podium, greets the orchestra and the audience and then picks up a hand microphone. From any spot in the intimate space of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, you’d mistake him for a beaming, appealingly dimpled grad student. It isn’t until you’re up close that you make out the lines of his 47 years, and then not all that clearly. This is the fair, blond youthful hero of legend in the pages of Finland’s Kalevala, and that fairly well describes his status in Los Angeles as well.

Salonen has a few words for the audience about
Wing on Wing, his new 26-minute piece that begins the night’s program. In the last year he has taken to chatting up the audience before conducting some of the less-familiar music on his programs, and he has found his ease at it. Tonight’s music is actually about Disney Hall; it even incorporates the sampled voice of its architect, the celebrated Frank Gehry. “I struggled with this idea,” says Salonen. “How in hell do you write music about a hall? Finally I realized, my job is not to describe the hall, but my personal reaction: how happy I am that it’s here, and how grateful I am to Frank.”

Twenty-six minutes later the applause is, perhaps grateful,
certainly proud. The love affair between Los Angeles and its golden Musicus is real and ardent, and it has been going on, depending on who’s counting, either since the day in late November 1984 when as a total unknown he made his Philharmonic debut in a killer program, or the day eight years  later when the Philharmonic management bowed to the inevitable and proclaimed him the orchestra’s tenth-ever music director.

But there’s more to Esa-Pekka Salonen than just one of the
latest splendid knights-in-armor who just might conduct Classical Music out of its current dolorous estate. Taken as an artistic entity, without factoring in the wife, Jane, and the three kids of a joyously normal sunlit family, Salonen is some kind of new and wondrous invention. Just take the circumstances of that aforementioned night at Disney Hall. Here was the conductor about to lead his own orchestra in an extended piece of new music, of which he was also the composer and the fabricator of its very plan. The piece, furthermore, celebrates the concert hall in which the performance is taking place; the composer/conductor/planner of the piece has also been deeply involved in the planning of the hall during the entire time of construction. The only fly in the ointment, in fact, is that the economics of the industry have ordained that the piece be recorded not in situ but by an orchestra in Finland.

Life as a musical polymath, Salonen has always claimed, has
simply been the product of a series of lucky accidents. “I studied composition and analysis primarily,” he told a reporter onhis first American visit, “with conducting merely as something useful for a composer to know. Then came the calls, and I simply noticed after a while that I was a full-time conductor.” Most important among those calls came from London’s Philharmonia in September 1983 to fill an emergency last-minute vacancy to conduct the Mahler Third. The work was at the time unknown to Salonen, and he had a week’s time to learn its 90-minute vagaries. “I just jumped in,” he remembers.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Ernest Fleischmann “just
happened” to be in the audience that day. Fourteen months later Salonen was in Los Angeles for a debut that included the Third Symphony of Witold Lutoslawski, the Polish composer with whom Salonen had briefly studied. Los Angeles wasn’t used to such challenging fare, especially handed off by an eager, unknown newcomer, but that night the crowd erupted, in the first of the aggressively positive ovations that have been regularly accorded Salonen to the present day.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1984 was not the orchestra
that might tempt a young musician to cast his lot with the city’s musical life. Carlo Maria Giulini’s eloquent leadership could elicit loving, moving performances of a narrow repertory, but his absences were frequent and demoralizing, and he would resign the next year. André Previn came on; to nobody’s surprise, he and Ernest Fleischmann locked horns almost immediately as to whose orchestra it actually was. “André used  to send his hands to rehearsals,” an orchestra member recounts, “but leave his brain at home.” The orchestra, never an admirable ensemble as such under even Giulini and Zubin Mehta, turned up some weeks in truly wretched state.

The only bright moments came with the guest shots, more
and more frequent, from Fleischmann’s two young “discoveries,” Britain’s Simon Rattle and, now, Salonen. Rumors flew; obviously either would have been a glowing choice as successor to redeem the Philharmonic from the somnolence imposed by Previn. But Rattle’s heart belonged to Birmingham. In 1990 Fleischmann booked the Philharmonic on an international tour, with Salonen as conductor. Exit Previn in a huff. In 1992 Esa-Pekka Salonen became the tenth music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. That summer, he and the Philharmonic began a distinguished association with the Salzburg Festival with a production of Olivier Messiaen’s Saint-François staged by Peter Sellars. For his inaugural concert as music director at the Music Center, however, his chosen work was the Mahler Third, the symphony that had put him in the Los Angeles line of sight nine years earlier.

You need some history to realize the extent of Salonen’s
accomplishment in those first Los Angeles years. He took on a demoralized orchestra in a city that had to be taught all over again to care about its cultural amenities. The boyish good looks helped, but the musical qualities helped even more. Not every orchestra member was immediately pleased. The stick technique took getting used to at first; it has warmed considerably since. When the New York reviews came in after the touring began, and when the recording engineers from Sony came to call, Los Angeles began to get sold on its newly acquired treasure.

Even Sibelius helped; clearly the new guy had new things to
say on the subject. Dead though he was, and even deader though some found his music to be, Sibelius accounts for a lot of Salonen’s excellence, and the musical excellence of a whole generation of Finns among whom he stands tall. He explained this a couple of years ago. “For 600 years Finland was under Swedish rule, and the Finnish language was spoken only by peasants. From 1809, under Russian rule, the Finnish identity was even more endangered. In came Sibelius. He spoke Swedish, but he was chasing a girl whose parents were fanatical Finnish speakers, so he learned Finnish. He composed, and the patriotic messages in Finlandia and the Second Symphony became symbols of a Finnish identity. The Russians could cross out dangerous lines in political writing, but you can’t censor musical phrases. Sibelius became a monument, which killed his creativity but gave birth to his country. Finland’s classical music has always been the best way to tell the world we exist.

“And so,” he continued, “the Finnish government established
a system of communal music schools about thirty years ago, and this is now the harvesting time. Every little town has a music school; if a student can’t pay tuition or buy an instrument, those are provided free. A capable student moves on from the small music school to a bigger one. The best are taken to the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. Whatever quality there is is found; you can’t hide talent.”

Something else was brewing in
Los Angeles that would have sweetened the prospects for an oncoming Philharmonic conductor. In 1987 Mrs. Lillian B. Disney, widow of the beloved Walt, came out of the blue to inform Ernest Fleischmann and the Philharmonic board of her intention to endow a concert hall in her husband’s name, a state-of-the-art building to serve the city and to honor Walt’s love of music. A long architectural competition ensued, and the radical, wondrous design by Frank Gehry, another deep-seated musiclover, was chosen. The notion from the beginning was to bypass traditional concert-hall paraphernalia—chandeliers, heavy upholstery and the elements that made the present Chandler Pavilion a visual and acoustic liability—and build a contemporary hall that would welcome its audience both visually and sonically.

Disney Hall did not happen overnight, and it took many
times Lillian Disney’s original $50 million before the hall finally welcomed its first paying audiences at a gala on October 23, 2003. By then, however, its impact had spread beyond the artistic to the psychological. In the city long looked upon from beyond the mountains as the archetypal cultural desert, suddenly a structure devoted to the arts had become an anchoring force and even a tourist magnet. A city proverbially lacking in a ‘downtown’ had blossomed into a downtown that everybody wanted to see, to visit, to become a part of. And Esa-Pekka Salonen himself, during the long, sometimes frustrating, years of building, planning, postpone ment, and completion, had himself been implanted in this process and allowed it to govern his own future. “To be completely honest,” he told me just the other day, “I worked my butt off trying to get the hall built. Now it is there and I want to enjoy the harvest.”

For Salonen, that “harvest” consists in large measure in a
conductor’s ability to plan out a season’s repertory and actually hear it through; acoustic effects, instrumental blends, interplay of sounds and silence. Such freedom of choice, impossible to achieve in the former hall—or, for that matter, in most standard” concert halls worldwide—falls handsomely within the realm of possibility in the embrace of warm-hued Douglas fir of Frank Gehry’s and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota’s magical room. Salonen’s first year at Disney was his year to discover Berlioz: the evanescent delicacies of “Queen Mab” seemingly suspended in space, the blasts of the Requiem’s “Dies Irae” shaking a listener’s inmost spinal interstices without the slightest distortion. In the second year there was Wagner: Salonen’s first-ever interface with Tristan und Isolde, surrounded by a Bill Viola video realization and, once again, seemingly transforming the whole space of Disney Hall into a human heart.

Upcoming in next season’s planning: a Beethoven Festival like
none other, setting off the genius of 19th-century violence juxtaposed with such latter-day innovators as Dutilleux and Ligeti; and a “Minimalist Jukebox” curated by John Adams, the orchestra’s virtual composer-in-residence. Not without a certain chortling, Philharmonic General Manager and President Deborah Borda points out that when the American Symphony Orchestra League holds its annual convention next year, the place will be Los Angeles, and the theme will be “Innovation.” Where better?

Where better, indeed? Salonen came to the Philharmonic
without much of a mark as a conductor but with plenty in upper realms of new music. His portfolio listed a considerable content of music composed during his European wanderyears, from his basic studies at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy to base-touching with the likes of Lutoslawski and Boulez and Franco Donatoni. Early Los Angeles audiences were properly titillated by charming short solo works and by a bit of verbal fluff called Floof. There was also a rather sassy, if undisciplined Saxophone Concerto, which gives off the sense of a young man’s need to get something out of his system this once. All this early reaching-out seemed suddenly shaded, however, in the fall of 1997 by LA Variations, a 21-minute orchestral piece written for and performed by the orchestra, a tribute and a mark of respect for a skilled large orchestra playing important music worthy of itself. LA Variations marked an extraordinary emergence for Salonen, the unleashing of a steady stream of large-scale orchestral works, a remarkable stylistic turn.

Salonen himself confronts this “turn,” but hesitantly. “I guess
the main shift in my thinking,” he recently wrote, “was a result of culture shock. I lost interest in dogma and ideology, and decided to write music that would satisfy and bring together both sides of my personality, the performer and the creator. I wanted to be able to luxuriate in the full resonance of an orchestral tutti; I wanted to have real pulse and rhythmic drive in my music. I developed a harmonic system that would allow me to create a sense of modulation, something that we completely lost in 12-tone music. (A big loss! So many of the greatest moments in the repertoire are modulations! Think of the Beethoven Eroica or Brahms IV or Tristan or…) Also I wanted to be able to do simple things (still working on that…), as well as complex things.”

The love affair continues. Salonen’s contract at the Philharmonic
has been extended through 2008, with an “evergreen” clause allowing for further extensions. It’s no secret that other orchestras have played footsie for his services over the years, but that’s hard to balance against Brentwood’s sunshine. The Hollywood proximity hasn’t hurt, either, as witness sensasational

success some years back of Salonen’s disc of Bernard Herrmann’s film music, which he might not have discovered as easily if he had taken the job in Cleveland. He and the Philharmonic have worked out an amicable time-sharing: 26 weeks a year for conducting, 26 for “composing and the socalled life.”

“I have been very happy both professionally and personally
in LA,” he continues. “I cannot imagine any other major city that would give its probably most important cultural institution into the hands of some Finnish guy in his early thirties and—even more amazingly—support him wholeheartedly along the way. This kind of openness and lack of prejudice is rare if not unique. Okay, people did not necessarily read Schopenhauer a lot in LA, nor were they interested in the pseudo-intellectual dogma of post-Darmstadt post-serialism. The mental and physical distance between myself in LA and Europe had a liberating effect on me. (There are some people in Europe who would replace ‘liberating’ with some other, considerably nastier sounding/smelling attribute, but I don’t care anymore. I’m a middle-aged guy with three children and not some young thing who worries about one’s identity and how it is perceived.)”

“To keep classical music alive,” Esa-Pekka Salonen has
said, “is a complex issue. It’s making sure that it’s not seen as something that has reached its peak long ago and now is in decline. It’s making sure that we are developing something, we are developing a tradition, we are questioning certain conventions, we are presenting old works in new light, new works in new contexts, basically taking care of the tradition, but also taking care of the talent of today. My sympathies lie very much in the music that is composed today because it interests me and it excites me, and for me it’s the most natural way of communicating with the rest of the world, to deal with composers who reflect the world in their music now.”

Those were his words to a gathering of music lovers in 1994. Ten years later, their glow abides.

Alan Rich has been the music critic of
LA Weekly since 1992. So I’ve Heard, a collection of his writings, will be published by the Amadeus Press in June.


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