He is the Finnish enfant terrible who unexpectedly transformed the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra into a world famous orchestra, inclined to not just play the old masters, but open for contemporary composers as well. With his easy-going nature and boyish good looks, Esa-Pekka Salonen is one of a handful of conductors whose names are familiar to a broader audience. In a discipline that rarely proclaims stars―he is a superstar.
Esa-Pekka Salonen is in a car in London, on his way to a rehearsal, and I’m talking to him over the phone in a conversation that gets disrupted more than once. It’s a bit like modern erratic music; our interview flickers on and off, on and off.
The reason we’re talking is that I am curious about his persona: young, hip and at the same time steeped in the rigors of classical music. I am also intrigued by his recent collaboration with fellow Scandinavian, Peter Martins, the Dane who helms the New York City Ballet, a ballet company as open to fresh, contemporary music as the L.A. Philharmonic.
“Peter and I met many years ago, and have been in touch since. Then, a few years back, we had a meeting and discussed possible ways we could work together,” Esa-Pekka says from his car. “I admire the City Ballet a lot, and I admire Peter. But when he approached me to write a score for him, it was the wrong time. I was busy with a violin project for the L.A. Orchestra at the time. So Peter suggested he become involved in that project, too. And that’s how it came about.”
Composing music is, as anyone can guess, a time-consuming business, and the way in which a modern composer works is very different from how it was done a century ago. The score, partly commissioned by the New York City Ballet, is proof of that.
“I wrote it for Leila Josefowicz, a violinist I greatly admire, because she is one of few young violinists who are willing to play contemporary music,” Salonen explains. “We discussed it for a long time, and then it was composed much via Internet, because we were rarely in the same place at the same time. Often I played something and e-mailed it to her, and she would play it back to me on Skype. A case of cyber communication!”
Both Josefowicz and Salonen were present at the New York State Theater at the premiere of the ballet, “Mirage,” which was choreographed by Peter Martins, earlier last summer. Salonen conducted and Josefowicz played.
“I thought it was interesting to see my concerto as a ballet,” Salonen muses, “and knowing that Peter would use it as such did somewhat inform the way I composed it. Especially the third movement is physically thought out.”
Esa-Pekka Salonen was born in Helsinki in 1958, where he studied horn and composition at the Sibelius Academy. He made his conducting debut―at age 21―with the Finnish Radio Symphony Academy, and became Chief Conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1985. He remained there for ten years, after which he left for southern California and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he was the music director for a record 17 years, longer than any other conductor.
At the time of his appointment with the L.A. Philharmonic, Salonen was considered young and quite avant-garde, with a taste for works that were generally considered weird and difficult. But he quickly won over the California audience.
When Salonen left Los Angeles, he left to an ovation from that same audience which lasted fifteen minutes, and with orchestra members milling around the stage to hug him. To say that Salonen was a highly regarded conductor, who helped carve out an international profile for the orchestra, is an understatement. He was more than that, he was loved and maybe even seen as something of a hero.
Talking about his departure, though, Salonen is characteristically cool and unsentimental. “The reason I left L.A. is really threefold,” he explains. “Firstly, I wanted to conduct less, and compose more, and I had very little time to compose there. Also 17 years is a long time. I decided a long time ago, that I would leave when things were still good. And there was still an amount of positive energy there when I left. It’s always best to leave while you’re still at the top. Then the third reason was that I thought it’d be good to live in Europe for a while. I wanted my children to get a European point of view, as well as a somewhat European education.”
Though he professes not to have one favorite composer, it’s no secret that Stravinsky has been important in Salonen’s career. During his time as conductor in Los Angeles, he led several acclaimed festivals of music by, among others, Stravinsky as well as Shostakovich and Schoenberg.
“He (Stravinsky) has always been there as one of my most central composers, important both because he was a composer and a conductor. He’s an inspiration and I’m deeply connected to his music.”
Today Salonen is the Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, a city he describes as “big, chaotic, dirty and also exciting.” He lives there with his wife Jane Price, and their three children. Although he is very much a man of the world, Salonen is still a Finn at heart.
“My identity, no matter how long I live abroad, is Finnish, and to a certain degree, Scandinavian. I come from the Scandinavian system, the ‘välfärdssamhälle,’ which is a democratically pluralistic society with a certain cosmopolitan view. That will never change. I was Chief Conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra during 1985-1995, so I even consider myself half Swedish and return there once or twice a year. Stockholm also feels like home.”
In fact, Salonen preferred carrying out the interview in Swedish, rather than English. Disarmingly open and easy-going, it comes as no surprise that Salonen won’t limit himself to listening only to classical music.
“I’m not a music snob. I listen to other music too, and have a soft spot for Italo pop, I studied in Italy when I was younger. When I am not working, I read a lot; right now I’m reading Augustus' "Res Gestae" with comments by a Finnish historian. I’m also jogging and I do yoga and try to stay in shape by going to the gym.”
You have no extravagant hobbies you can tell us about, I ask.
“No,” he laughs. “I have no yachts and no private air planes. I try to live a normal life since my working life is so not normal, you know?”
Salonen is the recipient of several major awards, including the Siena Prize from the Accademia Chigiana in 1993 (the first conductor ever to receive the prize), the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Opera Award in 1995, and their Conductor Award in 1997. In 1998, he was awarded the rank of Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. Musical America named him 2006 Musician of the Year.