Interview: Esa-Pekka Salonen — European Modernist in a West Coast Groove

This interview, for the pioneering classical startup Andante (where I was executive editor and creative director for a few years), was done in 2002 to mark 10 years of Esa-Pekka Salonen being music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. At that time, the Finn was anticipating the inauguration of a new hall for the orchestra — the now beloved Walt Disney Concert Hall — and he was on a roll as a recording artist, both as a composer and conductor. There has been a world of upset in the classical music world since then, though Salonen’s career evolution has been exemplary; even if he hasn’t been able to make as many latter-day records as he would have in an earlier era (as an esteemed maestro at his peak), Sony recently released Salonen’s recording of his Cello Concerto, with Yo-Yo Ma as soloist. Poised to do more great work, the 62-year-old Salonen is now the new music director of the San Francisco Symphony, as well as principal conductor of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra and conductor laureate of the L.A. Phil.

By Bradley Bambarger <2002>

Esa-Pekka Salonen — arguably the most exciting music director in the U.S. right now, if not the world — has accomplished an extraordinary amount in the decade he has been head of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Possessing a youthful, energetic mien and an acute intellect, the 43-year-old conductor has transformed his orchestra’s sound and sensibility on the way to heightening its profile at home and abroad. He has also continued his long tenure with Sony Classical (which began in 1985 with its forerunner, CBS Masterworks) by making dozens of fantastic recordings with his L.A. orchestra, London’s Philharmonia and other ensembles. His discography ranges far and wide, not only from Mahler, Debussy and Sibelius to Stravinsky, Lutoslawski and Ligeti but also further afield to Bernard Herrmann and Silvestre Revueltas. Most recently, Salonen’s record-making has included a pair of discs featuring works by Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg, two of Finland’s finest contemporary composers (and longtime Salonen friends). That’s not to mention a third, justly acclaimed album devoted to another top Finnish composer: Esa-Pekka Salonen himself.

In 2000, Salonen took a sabbatical from his L.A. Philharmonic duties to concentrate on composing. That year also saw him record the pieces that make up L.A. Variations, the recent Sony Classical album of his compositions. The first track on the recording — the title piece, a wonder of kaleidoscopic brilliance written specifically as a showcase for the sound of the Los Angeles orchestra — typifies the exponential growth in Salonen’s compositional output since an early collection of his writing issued by Finlandia in 1994. Incorporating quotes of Salonen’s great predecessor Sibelius, L.A. Variations does the subject of the tribute proud in that it is the rare piece of contemporary composition that beguiles a listener as much on a sensual level as on an intellectual one. The album includes two other works with him leading the L.A. Phil: the gorgeous high-energy abstraction of Gambit and the revised version of the Lutoslawskian Giro. The album also features the London Sinfonietta on pair of works with long-running Salonen associates as soloists: the virtual cello concerto Mania, with Anssi Karttunen, and Five Images After Sappho, with soprano Dawn Upshaw.

More products of Salonen’s pen have begun to sound out, such as his first choral work: Two Songs on Poems of Ann Jaderlund: Deep in the Room and Kiss My Mouth. Written for the 75th anniversary of the Swedish Radio Chorus last year, it just received its U.S. debut by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. As a conductor, Salonen should have an album of Hindemith out soon that includes The Four Temperaments (with pianist Emanuel Ax) and the Mathis der Mahler Symphony. He has upcoming L.A. Phil tours of Japan and Europe, and there is a series devoted to the music of Arnold Schoenberg, among other attractions, at home. Salonen sat for this interview after a long day of press conferences devoted to the L.A. Philharmonic’s $274 million, 293,000-square foot Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry and set to open for the start of the 2002-2003 season. Even with the opening night of Prokofiev’s War and Peace at the Metropolitan Opera yet to go (although as an audience member, not as a conductor), Salonen still demonstrated his characteristic mix of intellectual energy, low-key eloquence and ironic sense of humor.

Bradley Bambarger: It has been 10 years in Los Angeles for you, and in the past, you’ve spoken of having to get used to the rhythms of L.A. How do those rhythms differ from those in, say, Helsinki or London?

Esa-Pekka Salonen: Los Angeles is just a more open place.

BB: By “open,” do you mean in terms of the city’s horizontal character, geographically, or that people are open to new ideas there?

Salonen: Both horizontally, in terms of space, and in terms of ideas and influence, of what is expected of you. The way L.A. functions, at least in my experience, is that people give you a forum. They say, “OK, here it is. Show us what you can do.” That sort of openness and support is rare. It would not happen in Europe today, for instance. There is so much tradition there, and everyone has established ideas as to what art should be and what it has always been. I find that there is more openness in L.A. to possibilities than even on the East Coast of America. There is a pioneering spirit in California that still stems from the reason people went out there in the first place: to find something new, to create something new. And the main industry they created in Los Angeles — for better or worse — happened to take over the world. So, there remains a receptivity there to things that haven’t been tried yet.

BB: Have you made many collaborative connections with the film industry in your time in Los Angeles?

Salonen: I know many film composers and others in the industry. Although in terms of real collaboration, there has been little. We had a “Filmharmonic” project that started with some music and animation a few years ago, but the funding didn’t quite work out as we had hoped, some firms went bust, and certain people got sacked from their influential positions. But we haven’t given up on the concept. One of the ideas that we have for the new hall is that there should be more collaboration between different art forms, film being one of them. We plan to announce some new projects later.

BB: How committed are you to programming film music during the L.A. Philharmonic season, to making that connection to your geography?

Salonen: I don’t believe in there being an annual dose of film music for the sake of it being film music. If we program film music, it will be because there is a real artistic reason for doing so. Our audience gets quite a bit of film music in the Hollywood Bowl every summer; so, if we do film music downtown, it will likely be part of a special project.

BB: You have strived, though, to tie relevant 20th-century music to your geography, as with your series of Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

Salonen: These are great composers who lived and worked in Los Angeles. In the case of Stravinsky, he was settled there longer than anywhere, and with Schoenberg, he left a legacy of students from teaching there. In putting on these series, we’ve been able to involve people from outside the Philharmonic community, so it’s nice to see some community pride in these composers. This country, and the West Coast, especially, is bad at preserving any cultural legacy. Stravinsky’s home was up for sale some years ago. I went to see it, and because there had only been one owner since Stravinsky, there was still the same carpet on the floor of his studio — with the marks remaining from his grand piano. And there was also the same chaise lounge, where the writer Christopher Isherwood slept when he was too drunk to go home. I considered buying the house myself, but then I thought, ‘Life is difficult enough as it is. Why should I make it more so by trying to write a piece of music in Stravinsky’s room?’ The house should’ve been turned into a museum; it wasn’t expensive, really. In Europe, a house like this would have been cast in acrylic years ago. Here, no one gave a shit.

BB: The L.A. Philharmonic will soon have a new home. What aspect of a modern concert hall is most important to you?

Salonen: Its sound. I love a visceral sound, the kind that hits you in the belly. I had an interesting experience at the Cité de la Musique in Paris, where there was an exhibit devoted to venues for giving concerts in Mozart’s time. Looking at the scale models, I realized just how tiny the rooms were. And their proportions were such that they were quite reverberant. The effect of the opening bars of Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony, let’s say, must have been like the opening chords of a Metallica song today. We lost a hell of a lot of clout when we began playing Mozart in these huge halls, where it ends up sounding like something just vaguely pleasant. That’s one reason why classical music loses so much ground in its modern relevance — even the crappiest pop music produces more physical sensation. Music cannot have its full appeal without its physical aspect. That’s not cultural but biological — we want to dance. Music has just as much to do with movement and body as it does soul and intellect. So, in the new hall, when we’re at the end of The Rite of Spring or of a Bruckner symphony, I want people to feel the music physically.

BB: Which concert halls around the world are your acoustic models?

Salonen: It’s difficult to make comparisons with old concert halls, but I love the sound of the St. Petersburg Philharmonie — it’s amazing. I’m a big fan of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and the Gothenburg Concert Hall in Sweden is fabulous. I think the modern concert hall that comes closest, in terms of ideology at least, is the Berlin Philharmonie.

BB: Beyond sound, what else is on your wishlist for the new hall?

Salonen: There is the dramaturgy, if you will. The orchestra will be in the middle, and the audience’s connection to the music-making will be more direct. There will be less of the idea that the music is being divined in from another room, let alone another planet. There are also important extramusical considerations for the hall, such as the building being open to the street level, in an inviting way. You aren’t being made to look up worshipfully at this intimidating arts venue. London’s Royal Festival Hall is nice in this way — people hang out there. I think this inviting, non-exclusive character is very important, perhaps especially in Los Angeles.

BB: How much persuading did it take for Sony Classical to back your recent trio of recordings devoted to new Finnish music, that of Kaija Saariaho, Magnus Lindberg, and yours?

Salonen: Some. But, strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, this is the kind of repertoire that you can record these days. It would be much harder to talk a record company into doing a complete Brahms cycle.

BB: Have you tried talking Sony into Brahms?

Salonen: No. But it’s kind of funny. Back in 1985, when I started recording with CBS Masterworks [the forerunner of Sony Classical], it was the complete reverse. Everybody said, ‘Well, of course, you’ll do your Brahms cycle eventually when you feel ready, but in the meantime, there’s all this other stuff you can do.’ Now, all this ‘other stuff’ is the only thing you can do. As for the Saariaho and the Lindberg, these were projects that we had settled on some time ago and that made perfect artistic sense, but these composers have become much more au courant lately. And the release of the discs was very timely, with Saariaho just having all the success in Salzburg and Paris with her opera L’Amour de Loin and the Lindberg record coming out in the middle of this mega-project of ours with this music in Europe.

BB: Were you pleased at the great reception given the disc of your own music?

Salonen: Very much so. And I was surprised. I thought I would get more criticism for being a conductor. There is such a suspicion in today’s world of people who do more than one thing, who aren’t specialized. I always tell a story illustrating our extreme division of labor: The roof of our home was leaking, so we called a roofer. He said, ‘Well, it’s not the roof — it’s the deck.’ So I called a deck man. The deck man said, ‘No, it’s not the deck. It’s the threshold, and I don’t do thresholds. You have to call Ivan, who does thresholds.’ So, I called Ivan, and he fixed my threshold. So, of course, with this degree of specialization in our society, anyone who composes and conducts at the same time is immediately suspect, because he must be faking one or the other. Yet people have largely forgiven the fact that I have a double existence.

BB: You took a composing sabbatical in 2000 that helped produce these latest pieces. What did you learn during your time off from conducting?

Salonen: The breakthrough really was that I realized I could do it, that I could step away from conducting. What I did miss was the energy that came from the meeting of a hundred people — and the adrenaline of the concert experience. And the music, of course. I really missed the physical contact with Brahms, Stravinsky. I ended up going to a lot of concerts, actually. But the act of conducting in itself, of waving my arms in the air and being in charge, I didn’t miss. I missed the sensual pleasure of being in contact with music. That’s why I went to so many concerts.

BB: Did you listen to many recordings during this time — or is that not the same?

Salonen: Recordings are fine. I listened to a lot of chamber music at home. But for what I’m talking about, you have to be there. I went to a lot of L.A. Philharmonic concerts.

BB: Are you satisfied with the balance in your life now between being an inventor of music on one hand and an interpreter of music on the other?

Salonen: No, it’s a constant battle. But I’m in the process of modifying my schedule sufficiently so that I can write one big piece per year. If I could write half an hour’s worth of music a year, that would be fine.

BB: Back to your other job: how has the L.A. Philharmonic changed over the past decade?

Salonen: First of all, there are many new players, at least 30.

BB: Have the new players helped you to achieve the sound you envisioned?

Salonen: From the beginning, the L.A. Philharmonic has been a very flexible orchestra, and I didn’t have an unrealistic picture in mind. I liked their basic sound. I just wanted to stretch it in terms of transparency and dynamics. With American orchestras, in particular, because they play in such huge halls, getting a true pianissimo is very hard — the players never think they project enough. In a hall that seats 3,300 people, it’s a very scary thing to play so quietly that you can barely hear yourself. Now when new players come into the orchestra, they naturally blend in with the sound the group is making.

BB: Following this new transparency and dynamic range that you’ve achieved with the orchestra, what’s the next goal?

Salonen: Once you get over the first hill, there is always a new, higher one lurking, of course. We’ve been working on the idea of seamlessness in the playing, of going back to the old idea of not synchronizing the bow exactly.

BB: That’s a very early-20th-century, Furtwänglerian technique.

Salonen: Yes, it is, but funnily enough, this continuity of sound and of form was something that I became really interested in from working with György Ligeti for some years. He was always going on about how form has to be continuous. If the seams are showing, then there is something wrong with either the performance or the construction of the piece. Of course, this sort of idea is completely at odds with our modern visual experience, because everything today is based on montage. As we watch TV or films, there are no organic transitions, only edits. The idea of A becoming B, rather than A jumping to B, has become foreign.

BB: That concept of organic transition, of “becoming,” is central to the music of Sibelius.

Salonen: Yes, but this sort of formal principle isn’t used much at all in contemporary music, contemporary music-making. Orchestras have become used to this, to the emphasis on the separation of layers, of the ultimate precision and clarity. But I have become quite fascinated by the expressive possibilities available in the sort of irrational aspects of ensemble playing — of creating expression and sound by leaving rough edges, as if treating the orchestra with one of those phase shifters used in the ’70s to distort electric guitars.

BB: Do you think this is an idea that would appeal to Pierre Boulez?

Salonen: No, not at all. And it’s not something that interested me until very recently.

BB: Were you more of the opposite mind when you were younger?

Salonen: Well, when I was younger, I was just trying to keep it together, obviously. Eventually, a result that was anything less than absolutely clear, I found personally rather insulting. I felt like a failure if there was a chord that wasn’t perfectly together. I’m still disturbed if a chord isn’t together, but your priorities change as you get older. I want to have a part of my vocabulary that allows me a range of expression based on a different set of values, with clarity not of prime importance perhaps but color instead. It’s funny now with some of the older players in the orchestra when they hear me talk like this — it’s, like, ‘Welcome home, son.’ But I have to say that it was after working with Ligeti that I began to hear Brahms and Beethoven differently. And this proves a theory I’ve always held: that the performing of different types of music ends up cross-fertilizing your work. It’s amusing that working with Ligeti would make me conduct Brahms differently, and vice versa, I suppose, but there you are. In the range of music that we play — roughly 300 years’ worth — there really are more similarities than differences. The phenotype of Ligeti may be different from the phenotype of Brahms, but their genotypes are the same.

(Originally published in 2002 on

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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