in Articles

The maestro who recomposed his life

by Vesa Sirén

"These days Esa-Pekka Salonen is a superstar who spends seven months of each year composing and the rest conducting some of the world’s finest orchestras. He has seen the music scene in Finland change fundamentally since the founding of the FMQ."

Esa-Pekka Salonen has a pat answer to the question of how the music scene in Finland has changed since the founding of the FMQ 30 years ago.

“One word: internationalisation,” says Salonen, Chief Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, Artistic Director of the Baltic Sea Festival in Stockholm and Conductor Laureate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

“There was quality in Finnish music in the early days of the FMQ, to be sure, but mushrooming internationalisation is the really big thing that has happened. Three decades ago, people in Finland wrote operas in Finnish about Finnish topics, from lay preacher Paavo Ruotsalainen in Viimeiset kiusaukset (The Last Temptations) by Joonas Kokkonen to a historical novel by Ilmari Kianto in Punainen viiva (The Red Line) by Aulis Sallinen. Today, the most successful Finnish operas are in French or what have you. Here in Finland, it’s sometimes difficult to comprehend that people like Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg are even more famous internationally than they are in Finland. They’re among today’s leading contemporary composers worldwide.”

Internationalisation works both ways.

The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Finnish National Opera now use English as their working language so that all musicians can understand what is going on. Paul Pollard from the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera in New York is playing bass trombone with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and top musicians from various metropolises have migrated to Sweden, for instance, attracted by the Nordic quality of life. And this is just the beginning. Classical music suits the cosmopolitan ideology extremely well: there is no language barrier as in literature or drama. When you share in the European cultural heritage, it doesn’t matter where you actually come from. There are top musicians in Finland who have come from Asia.”

The major challenge according to Salonen is to consider what Finnish music can be and what it wants to be 10 or 30 years from now.

“What is the cost of internationalisation? To what extent can we retain our national specialities and a Finnish orchestral sound? I don’t know the answer to that. Of course, all orchestras have their own traditions that are transferred to new members by osmosis, as it were, and this must be cherished.”

In early autumn 2014, for the first time in a long time, Salonen had engagements with three Finnish orchestras: the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Finnish National Opera and the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra, of which he was a founding member in 1983.

“People in Finland are now gratifyingly hard-working and keenly ambitious, and there are no clock-watchers. This is fantastic for an old hand such as myself, considering that these are financially difficult times and that there’s a funny cultural debate going on in Finland, including downright idiotic lowbrow comments. But the institutions are doing better than ever.”


The master and his apprenticeship

Salonen himself is a textbook case of internationalisation. He made a sensational breakthrough in September 1983 when he was called in at five days’ notice as a sick-leave replacement for Michael Tilson Thomas, conducting Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony in concert with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. He had never conducted the work before. Immediately after the concert, the managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic asked him whether he would be interested in becoming the orchestra’s next Music Director. Salonen initially agreed only to appear as a guest conductor. In the following few weeks, he received debut invitations from almost all of the top orchestras of the world, up to and including the Berlin Philharmonic.

A 25-year-old conductor with a youthful appearance was a rarity in those days. He was almost barred at the door at a rehearsal with a German orchestra because such a young guy in jogging clothes could not possibly be a conductor. And then there was this time in Munich:

“Once when I was very young, I was rehearsing Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. They were slacking along until suddenly they almost visibly straightened up, and the sound blossomed. I was very pleased with myself until the leader remarked: ‘Der Kleiber ist da.’ ”

Carlos Kleiber, the withdrawn and cordial conductor adored by orchestral musicians everywhere, had just entered the hall. His very presence inspired the orchestra to play better.

“I almost wet myself and rushed over to greet Kleiber, but he was even quicker at beating a retreat out of the hall. At that time, I was perhaps still trying to get orchestras to bend to my will. Today, I see myself as a tool enabling musicians to do their best. The ideal way to lead is so that no one notices it.”

He soon became Principal Guest Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra, Chief Conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (1985–1995), one of the foremost conductors recording for Sony Classical, and Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra (1992–2009). One of the high points of his time in Los Angeles was the inauguration of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry, in 2003.

Salonen initially had a peremptorily clear and no-nonsense approach as a conductor. Working in Sweden and Finland brought out a more relaxed and hedonistic master of explosive rhythms, and subsequently he has evolved into a more subtle and elastic shaper of tonal colours, as can be noted in his later recordings for Deutsche Grammophon and Signum.


An embarrassment of riches

Salonen is also a world-class composer, and this produced an embarrassment of riches. He was offered so many so interesting conducting projects all over the place over the decades that he felt he never had enough time to write music.

Eventually he decided to sell his home in the upmarket Brentwood neighbourhood of Los Angeles and to give up his million-dollar salary with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the tiny army of helpers engaged to make his daily life easier, from chauffeur to chiropractor.

He took up the administratively lighter post of Chief Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London during his last-but-one year in Los Angeles in 2008. His aim was to explore specific themes in more depth, performing programmes with the Philharmonia Orchestra first in the UK and then on tour. He and his family relocated to London.

But even then he did not find enough time to write music. Because of his conducting commitments, he was obliged to pass on a request for a joint commission from the Berlin Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, an opportunity for which most composers would give their left arm.

In November 2013, during an interview for Helsingin Sanomat with the present author in New York, Salonen announced a profound change in his life. He was going to concentrate all of his conducting duties – the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Baltic Sea Festival in Stockholm and guest appearances with other orchestras – into a five-month period each year for the next five years, leaving seven months per year free for composing. “There is no other way I could manage the commissions I have accepted,” he said then.

In another surprising turn, the family decided to return from London to Los Angeles, even though Salonen’s tenure with the Philharmonia Orchestra is still continuing at the time of this writing. “My daughters are studying in the USA, and my son wants to go to high school there. It’s generally a good idea for parents to live on the same continent as their children.”

Salonen says that Los Angeles is conveniently off the beaten track as far as the music business and meeting requests are concerned. “I even dream of having a retreat where I can write music, somewhere in the mountains where there’s no mobile phone signal. I’ve understood that Los Angeles is nearer to my idea of home than any other city in the world.”

Even with his life restructured, Salonen has promised to conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra for more than 10 weeks each year at least until the end of his term, but he is cutting back on guest conducting. He still works with orchestras such as the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonic, though.

“I’m cutting routine work to the bone. I’ve already clocked up a thousand concerts in LA and 350 concerts with the Philharmonia Orchestra. I’m now looking at mini-festivals and larger thematic packages.”

His intentions regarding Finland are that he will be conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra “at least every other year”. He has never yet accepted a chief conductor post with a Finnish orchestra. “But never say never. It’s just not on the cards at the moment while my kids are at school in the USA.”


Beyond dogma and syntax

Salonen began his composing career as a hardcore modernist, but from the very earliest works – say, the Saxophone Concerto and Floof – his music showed a dogma-spurning looseness and an impish sense of humour. Hedonistic sonority has gradually increased in his writing over the decades. His output is extensive, and he has received commissions from just about everyone who is anyone in the musical world. His greatest international hits are probably LA Variations and the Violin Concerto, which was premiered by Leila Josefowicz and which ended up being used in an Apple ad.

His major premiere in autumn 2014 was Karawane, a work for choir and orchestra lasting almost 30 minutes. “My former assistant Lionel Bringuier commissioned the work for his inaugural concert as Chief Conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich, and I was touched by the request. The New York Philharmonic joined in as co-commissioner.”

Karawane is a setting of a Dadaist text by Hugo Ball.

“It might be about a circus, a caravan that slowly slogs its way from here to there. Poetry that transcends the syntax of language is very useful for me. I can treat its words like atoms, like phonetic elements, or assign them whatever meaning I want.”

Initially firmly in the camp of absolute music, Salonen has migrated to a different aesthetic.

“I’m beginning to realise that the dichotomy of absolute music and non-absolute music in German arts philosophy is rather artificial and rarely works in practice. There’s no such thing as absolute music that makes no reference at all to anything outside itself. Even if the music itself tries to be absolute, it always resonates and prompts associations in the mental reference network of every listener.”

Accordingly, narrative is almost always present in Salonen’s composing approach today.

“People assign meaning to what they hear. A musical impulse may remind us of our first kiss or the first time we got drunk or the universe exploding or some tiny anecdote.”


Run that by me again

Combining text and music is not without its problems, Salonen notes.

“This is mainly because of the way that classical singers are trained and the way that composers write music. It’s often difficult to make sense of the words. Exceptions in this regard are the great Lied singers who place the comprehensibility of the lyrics above everything else. The majority of the world’s opera repertoire gleefully ignores this, with melismatic music where syllables are stretched out over multiple notes. And if the point is to tell a story comprehensibly, then why have people singing with a hundred-piece orchestra playing at the same time? In order to enjoy opera, you have to accept the axiom that it’s impossible to understand everything.”

Salonen himself has struggled with the opera genre for quite some time. He attempted to write an opera based on Peter Høeg’s novel The Woman and the Ape on his sabbatical at the turn of the millennium, but the libretto was not completed on time. However, he has written many works featuring the human voice.

“I prefer texts that are not terribly verbose. There has to be air and space to allow for music. I have set some extremely economical poems by Ann Jäderlund, some things by Sappho and the concluding lines of Dante’s Paradiso, which are so dense that not even Dante himself fully understood them. The only thing that Dante understood after meeting the biggest names in Paradise was that love is what holds the universe together. So why worry about comprehensibility when the text is almost incomprehensible in itself?”

Salonen’s future plans include a song-cycle for bass and orchestra. The New York Philharmonic has commissioned a cello concerto. This emerged out of Salonen and cellist superstar Yo-Yo Ma going on a martini drinking binge.

“In the morning, I had this vague recollection that he wanted me to write something for him. Yo-Yo was equally vague about what had happened, but he insisted that I had promised to write him a cello concerto.”

So what else is on the table in his collaboration with the New York Philharmonic?

“There is nothing else on paper so far. Apparently my music will continue to be played in New York,” says Salonen carefully in autumn 2014.


Cooperation and identity

What are Salonen’s plans with the Philharmonia Orchestra?

“The music situation in London could not be better, but touring is hampered by the general European financial crisis. It’s not uncommon for project funding to hang in the balance until a few weeks beforehand.”

And when his term with the Philharmonia Orchestra eventually ends?

“I might have it in me to take one more shot at directing an orchestra completely new to me. But it would have to feel like a match made in heaven.”

He is still Artistic Director of the Baltic Sea Festival, based at Berwaldhallen in Stockholm. Valery Gergiev, director of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, has been a key partner at the festival from the very first. This led to Salonen having to answer questions about international politics in 2014, as Gergiev had endorsed Vladimir Putin in the Russian presidential election and subsequently supported Putin in statements concerning the crisis in Ukraine.

“The political situation is extremely complex, but so far [at the time of this writing] no countries have imposed a boycott on cultural collaboration with Russian performers. Indeed, there’s no sane argument to be made in favour of such a boycott. Cultural cooperation is a much better way to go. At the same time, I have to say that I never for a moment sought to justify Valery’s views. What he said [in an interview with the present author in St Petersburg, published in Helsingin Sanomat in June 2014] sounded like it had been scripted for him by Putin’s propaganda team. He said that there are different realities, and I have no argument there. But I happen to trust our media more than the Russian media.”

Even as we speak, Salonen is looking forward to the next extended period of writing music. Why? Even a major commission from a top-notch orchestra is worth ‘only’ some tens of thousands yet requires months of work. As a conductor, Salonen could make that kind of money in a week.

Is it immortality he is looking for?

“That’s beyond my control. But it would be nice to think that someone will still be performing my music 50 years from now. I like writing music, even though it’s slow and difficult and does not pay well at all. I need space for my thoughts, and I cannot hear myself think when I conduct. Composing is my way of finding out who I am.”


Vesa Sirén is a music journalist with Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s leading daily newspaper. He is also the author of Suomalaiset kapellimestarit – Sibeliuksesta Saloseen, Kajanuksesta Franckiin (Finnish conductors – Sibelius to Salonen, Kajanus to Franck), which won the Tieto-Finlandia non-fiction prize in 2010. Excerpts from this article have been published previously in Helsingin Sanomat.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Photo: Jussi Puikkonen