A conversation with Esa-Pekka Salonen

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo by Katja Tahja.

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo by Katja Tahja.

Without a doubt, Finnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen is one of the world’s greatest living musicians. In high demand by leading orchestras and opera companies around the globe, he’s currently the Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor for London’s Philharmonia Orchestra and the Conductor Laureate for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he was Music Director from 1992 until 2009, a remarkable tenure during which the orchestra rose to international prominence and built Disney Hall, of one the world’s most highly regarded concert halls and a central factor in the revitalization of downtown Los Angeles. Alex Ross of The New Yorkerwrote, “Salonen turned the Los Angeles Philharmonic into the most intellectually lively orchestra in America. … the metamorphosis of the Philharmonic was Salonen’s doing, and he thereby gained a place among the visionary conductors of American musical history.”

Salonen’s not your average classical musician: he has the warm aura of a rebellious genius. Though he’s received seven honorary doctorates in four different countries, he never completed his own studies. When Apple launched the iPad, he was the first prominent musician to be associated with it, appearing in Apple’s advertising, and later, with the Philharmonia, creating an interactive app that takes users deep inside the scores of famous pieces. Salonen frequently jokes about the image of Herbert von Karajan riding a Harley Davidson on an album cover, but no one would be at all surprised to see him pull up to the concert hall on one, even though he is now in his 50s. He splits his time away from the podium between L.A., London, and Finland.

In Ross’ book Listen to This  he says, “I had no great desires of becoming a conductor. In fact, I thought conductors were disgusting… I thought that conductors get so much attention for almost no reason and the really important guy, i.e. the composer, is the worst-paid one and the one who always stays in the worst hotel and is kicked on the head by everybody else, and I thought that was rotten. I still do, actually.”

We talked by phone, in between his rehearsals with the San Francisco Symphony, where this week he’s the guest conductor in a program featuring Stravinsky’s Firebird,  Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite,  and Salonen’s own Nyx.

MR: I’ve been to a number of performances you’ve conducted, and two of them brought me to the point where I found myself having to fight back tears. The first was during the The Tristan Project [LA Phil’s collaboration with Peter Sellars and Bill Viola on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde ], which I saw in 2007. After the first act I felt completely blown away– so much so that I couldn’t say a word to my companion after the lights came up. I remember thinking to myself  I don’t know if I’ll be able to handle two more acts of this,  and when I finally felt that I could speak, the words that came out of my mouth were “How the f*** are they going to top that?” I looked around at other people making their way out of the hall and realized I wasn’t the only one having that kind of reaction.

The second time was after the performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony you led with the London Philharmonia during their visit to Berkeley in the fall of 2012. When the concert was over I walked outside and sat down for ten or fifteen minutes, so overcome with emotion that I thought I was going to lose it. In fact I did, truth be told.

Esa-Pekka Salonen: First of all let me say that I’m very happy to hear that you had these kinds of experiences because that’s the whole point. As you said yourself, music, and art in general, allow us to connect with parts of our mind and parts of our memory, and if you want you can use the word “soul,” though it’s more loaded. But I would say that sometimes a musical experience opens up some kind of a conduit– parts of your memories that you might have forgotten or suppressed, or are not acutely aware of, and Tristancertainly has this kind of effect. It has this sort of cumulative power, it draws you in and then just kind of makes you sink deeper and deeper into the vortex and finally it just renders you kind of useless– as you said, you couldn’t even talk to your date. And of course Mahler goes to a similar kind of place– it’s an “end of life” kind of thing, and as none of us knows what it really means, a nonverbal vision of it is most likely better and more accurate than something that you try to describe in words. I think music has this unique quality of connecting the different strata of your mind, equating emotional experiences that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to approach in any other way.

MR: You once said “My best concert memories are always the ones where I felt the boundaries between the orchestra and myself and the music disappear.” Do you remember if these two concerts I’m speaking of– and I know there were multiple performances of Tristan in L.A. but I went on the night it was performed in its entirety–  are among your memories of concerts where this occurred?

Salonen: Definitely. I would indeed. To conduct Tristanis such an incredible journey and what happens is that after each act you think okay that’s it– I’m done. And especially after the second act, which is long and goes to a very dark place emotionally. At that point you are already exhausted– you’re exhausted emotionally and physically and mentally in every way, and then when the third act starts you don’t believe that this is happening to you, like the very idea of doing another 75 minutes of this stuff seems totally impossible. And then something really strange happens if it goes well, if the flow is right. You somehow forget the time. Time kind of ceases to exist, or exists only in a degree. You feel that there is a flow that carries you and that you’re not putting in very much effort anymore because you’re just receding.

This is my experience with this piece– so many times when you come to the last note of this opera you don’t want it to stop. In a way you don’t want to go back to your life– you want to stay where you’ve been for the last four hours. That’s also the unique power of music– that it creates a world which in many ways is better than the one we inhabit in physical terms. The laws are different, the physics are different, the way time behaves is certainly different– and we become something else. Perhaps a little, or much better, than in physical reality, and that’s the miracle part that’s hard to explain unless you have experienced it yourself.

MR: Let’s talk about Nyx,  which you’ll be conducting this week with the San Francisco Symphony. The contrasts in this piece fascinate me. My two favorite moments are the point at about 11 1/2 minutes in, where there’s this crushing, quickly moving downward flash, and then at the very end when this little whimsical farewell pops up out of nowhere.  Tell me about Nyx and her volatility– and the dual nature of this particular piece.

Salonen: Well, the title refers to a Greek primordial god, or goddess, of whom we know precious little– there are at least three different stories– all we know is that she was somehow in charge of the night and is very elusive, multifaceted, and capricious. I thought it would be a good title because it leaves the field open– I don’t have to pretend that I’m describing some kind of human-like thing. It’s more about something nebulous, tenderness turning rapidly to aggression, and the quietest moments turn into loud noises, this kind of thing where the range of expression is huge and the changes are rapid. Sometimes it’s almost like cutting from one place to another– there are not that many progressions in the piece– things don’t become other things slowly, they kind of slip over.

At the very end I had a lot of trouble because I really felt I had used all of the ammunition I had and yet I still felt something needed to be said. Then I remembered an opera performance I had heard when I was in my 20s in Munich. It was Carlos Kleiber conducting Rosenkavalierat the Munich State Opera, which was one of the finest opera performances I’ve ever heard in my life. At the very end of this old production by Otto Schenk, there’s a page who runs across the stage and just gives a little wink to the audience, then waves goodbye with his little white handkerchief. That was it. So I tried to do something similar in the very last scale of Nyx– for me this is the page running across the stage with a handkerchief.

MR: I also hear a lot of humor and sex– there are parts of NyxI find very funny, and others that are very sexy. Those are two things we often experience during the night. Do you agree?

Salonen: Yes [slyly, sounding intrigued]. I guess I wouldn’t have decided to call the piece Nyxunless there was a sensual or erotic element in the expression as well. Yes, absolutely. It’s not like I’m trying to describe a particular form of sexual act or anything like that, but definitely yes.

MR: For me that mixture of sensuality and violence is one of the allures of the piece.

Salonen: Yes, I guess the it’s the borderline area where pain becomes pleasure and vice-versa. Where tenderness slips over into something more assertive– those kinds of things.

MR: Yes, I think that’s all there.

Salonen: I’m happy to hear that. I was hoping that they would be there.

MR: You’ve made some really insightful remarks about the cultural transformation of classical music during the 20th Century: about how the concert experience changed from being essentially a new music experience during the time of Beethoven and Brahms to today’s orchestras taking on aspects similar to pop cover bands, and about the impact by the advent of the LP on the popularity of classical music along with the purchasing power of the middle class after World War II. Now we’re at this point where I see technology really impacting the work of the young composers whose music I’m seeing and hearing, and now the concert experience is changing because of technology, such as with the San Francisco Symphony’s SoundBox series and what the Chicago Symphony is doing with their MusicNow series. What are your thoughts on how technology is influencing classical music today?

Salonen: First of all, I see this as an opportunity and not so much as a risk. If one looks back, every time there’s a new technological innovation that becomes mainstream, such as wireless radio back in the day, TV, or CDs, there have always been people who say ‘this marks the end of this culture as we know it’ or ‘this will be the end of the concert as a social phenomenon’ or ‘this will ruin and decimate the audiences.’ And as a matter of fact the results have been completely the opposite. Wireless radio multiplied the classical music audience, and the result of that multiplication was that hearing classical music performed in the concert hall finally became a normal, middle-class way of spending an evening.

The same thing with TV– I think that Lenny Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on CBS, where he was analyzing and explaining masterpieces in his own fantastic way– I think that brought an entire generation closer to classical music, at least in the U.S., than ever before. The LP allowed people to enjoy masterpieces at home and with quality sound, and eventually in stereo and all that. All these innovations have been good news for the culture. Now of course there are lots of dystopian ideas about what’s going to happen to the culture of high art, but so far I haven’t seen anything that truly alarms me and I see this as an opportunity. I think we just have to get out there and make sure that stuff is not only available, but that we use technology in order to enhance the experience and use it in a way that we don’t lose the heart or ideal of this music, but manage to connect with people to whom the idea of coming to a symphony concert would not be something they would naturally do. We just need to be proactive.

MR: What’s next for you when it comes to opera?

Salonen: I’m doing Pelléas et Mélisande  in Chicago in a couple of weeks time, in a minimally staged concert version. Then Elektraat the Met next spring– it’s the Chéreau production I conducted at Aix-en-Provence, sadly without Patrice, but his assistants are going to reconstruct his production. Then I’ll be doing be Pelléasin Aix-en-Provence during the summer of 2016 with Katie Mitchell.

MR: Any chance we’ll see you conducting Chéreau’s Elektrain San Francisco?

Salonen: There are no such plans to my knowledge, but it is a production that will definitely have a long life and I’m living in this part of the world again so it wouldn’t be too far away.

MR:  Last question: do you have any interest in the New York Phil gig?

Salonen: [after a brief hesitation] I haven’t even thought about it, because everybody who has ever conducted anywhere at all is being mentioned…

MR: Yes, but you’re being mentioned more than anyone else…

Salonen: Well, I don’t know. As far as I know the search process is just beginning and I haven’t been thinking about it.