Friday, 31 October 2008

An Interview with Esa-Pekka Salonen

This article was published in an edited form in The Straits Times on 15 October 2008

People who attend concerts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra are often taken aback by the youth of its Music Director, the Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Although he is 50 this year, he is usually mistaken to be one far younger. In 1989 when he was appointed as the successor to André Previn in Los Angeles, he was a mere 31-year-old wunderkind conductor with loads of experience behind him.

“LA has a habit of hiring young conductors. Southern Californian culture is not age-oriented. Here youth is an asset,” Salonen explained at a phone interview from Salzburg (where he was conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in Mahler's Third Symphony), citing Zubin Mehta as its youngest ever Music Director at 26, and collaborations with the young Simon Rattle and Michael Tilson Thomas when they were barely out of their teens. “That makes Gustavo Dudamel [Salonen’s successor, who will be 28 when he takes up the post] somewhere in the mid-generation!” he half-joked.

“When I first conducted the orchestra in the 1980s, I sensed a strong connection, and somehow knew this orchestra would play an important part in my life.” He was conducting Debussy’s opera Pelleas et Melisande in Florence when he received that letter of appointment from the orchestra’s Board. “Although I had some earlier signals, it was now for real!” he quipped.
Esa-Pekka Salonen with the
Walt Disney Hall as the backdrop
Had the LA Philharmonic changed in the 19 years working with him? “During my Los Angeles Philharmonic years we have taken on 50 new musicians. You can imagine that this has altered the orchestra quite a bit,” Salonen recalled, “Things changed as an organic process, rather than something extremely dramatic.”

The orchestra’s repertoire also evolved under Salonen’s helm. “With a 30 year old in charge, it would be unnatural if the orchestra’s repertoire did not change.” Known for his passion for 20th century music, it was not too difficult to win an audience over with new music. “I never performed music which I did not love or believe in myself. Music must move and excite me deeply, or generate a strong reaction in me. Over the years, the audience learnt to trust my judgment. The LA audience of today expects more new music!”

As of this year, Salonen is also the Principal Conductor of The Philharmonia Orchestra, based in London. “We have been working together for the past 25 years, several weeks every year. We now bring it to a new level with new musical projects.” Among these is music of the Viennese Secessionist period – late Mahler, early Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and mature 12-tone works including Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck – in collaboration with museums and galleries.

Salonen follows in an illustrious line of famous conductors who also composed; Mahler, Furtwängler and Weingartner all come to mind. Does being a conductor help a composer? “The more you know about how musical instruments, orchestras and people work, you learn to avoid fundamental mistakes in composition. One needs to strike a balance between being a utopian composer – one who writes music that cannot be performed – and a practical one,” he advised.

One of his best known orchestral works was LA Variations, written in 1997 for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Salonen describes his composition style as being “a synthesis of many different aspects of 20th century music, a hybrid of American and European influences”. His composing heroes? Stravinsky, the Pole Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) and the Hungarian György Ligeti (1923-2006), the latter two he had worked closely with in recording projects.
Speaking of composers, Salonen came very close to buying the former home of Igor Stravinsky in Beverly Hills (1260 North Wetherly Drive, above). “Amazingly, that home had only one owner since the Stravinskys, and much of the furniture, pictures and carpets had been retained. Here I was sitting on the floor of the studio feeling very enthusiastically about it, when a friend thought aloud: “Just imagine trying to write a piece of music in this room!” I gave up on the idea immediately!”

True to form, the music of Stravinsky, Sibelius, Debussy, Ravel and Tchaikovsky will feature in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s concerts conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Singapore Sun Festival on 25 and 26 October 2008. What about Lutoslawski and Ligeti? “The next time!” Salonen assured with a hint of a chuckle.

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