Musical Mission: Esa-Pekka Salonen

June 30, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: When the spectacular new Disney Hall opened in Los Angeles last year, the focus was appropriately on architect Frank Gehry. But musically, the new hall belongs largely to this man, Esa-Pekka Salonen. So, it must be something to have an astounding building like this made essential for you and your orchestra.

ESA-PEKKA SALONEN: It’s an amazing feeling. I would say, daily, when I walk in here, I cannot believe it’s here, and it’s still here. (Laughs) So, it’s like a dream.

JEFFREY BROWN: Salonen became music director and conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1992, at age 32. Twelve years later, he’s regularly cited as one of the classical music world’s leading young stars. Born and raised in Helsinki, Finland, Salonen played the French horn and studied composition before turning to conducting full-time. ( Music playing )

ESA-PEKKA SALONEN: The key issue is to be able to offer a very valid experience– something that is unique, something that you would not get anywhere else. There’s an element of ritual in a classical music concert, symphony concert, which is very much missing in other areas of our culture and society today. (Music playing)

JEFFREY BROWN: But classical music is widely seen as going through troubled times, with CD sales down and many orchestras struggling financially. One of Salonen’s solutions is to champion new music, seeing it as a way to reach new audiences and reinvigorate the field. His orchestra has commissioned 18 new works during his tenure, six this year alone. We talked recently at his Los Angeles home.

ESA-PEKKA SALONEN: One of the problems, of course, in classical music is that the gap between the repertoire and now is widening. This, in my opinion, is one of the reasons why classical music has been marginalized in our culture, in our society. There’s not enough emphasis on creation and creativity.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the issue then is how do you bridge that gap?

ESA-PEKKA SALONEN: Exactly. But if you think of why is a rock music experience so different, or a pop music experience so different, mostly it is that people are expecting to hear a new composition by someone. So we are waiting for the next album of such and such a band and such and such an artist, where there will be newly written compositions for… compositions for this and that performer. Whereas in classical music, the situation is not like that. And the simple remedy, of course, is to play more freshly composed music.

JEFFREY BROWN: New music, though, has often been seen as much a turn- off as much as turn-on for people.

ESA-PEKKA SALONEN: Well, of course, the new music has to be good. It has to be also the kind of music that communicates. The one wonderful thing about new music is, of course, that you can intensely dislike it. You have the freedom as a listener to say, “oh, I hated that piece,” which you don’t have when you go to hear a Brahms symphony, for instance, because this is the canon. You cannot hate the Brahms symphony.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean it’s just not allowed.

ESA-PEKKA SALONEN: No, it’s not allowed. It’s there. It’s the monument. It’s the icon. You don’t have the freedom of opinion, in that case. But if there’s a new piece by Salonen, you can say, “oh, that was the worst piece of crap I’ve ever heard in my life.”

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, Salonen is the rare high-profile conductor these days who will risk hearing just that. In recent years, he’s returned to composing; even taking a full year off from conducting in 2000. During our visit, he was working on a piece to celebrate the new Disney Hall.

ESA-PEKKA SALONEN: My actions are guided by the firm belief that I’m not very different from the rest of mankind. If there’s something that moves me amongst my own ideas for my composition, then I have a good reason to believe that I wouldn’t be alone in this. So in a way, I more or less write it for myself, knowing that I represent a large segment of mankind: People who enjoy music.

JEFFREY BROWN: You came here quite young to Los Angeles, the epicenter of pop culture, pop music and movies. How have you made your way?

ESA-PEKKA SALONEN: This has been quite a trip, I have to say. The real shock was coming to this very complex society, because I had this typical European attitude where the ranking list is completely clear. That the greatest dramatist of all times is Shakespeare, the greatest composer is Beethoven, or Bach perhaps, and the greatest sculptor is Michelangelo, and the greatest painter is, you know, endless, stupid list of this top-ten kind of things. And then I come here and I realized that in this kind of amazing melting pot of cultures and people, my list is no more valid than anybody else’s list. And this was a big shock because I grew up… I mean, this is all I knew.

And I haven’t given up on the idea of the importance of Beethoven in everybody’s life, by any means, but I have realized that things are not that simple. And that was quite a wonderful experience. I sort of woke up one morning– it wasn’t quite that dramatic, but almost– I woke up one morning and I looked around and I saw myself in the mirror, and I said, “you’re free. You can do whatever you like, artistically speaking.” It’s very simple, but it wasn’t that simple to begin with. So I’M… it sounds sentimental, but I’m eternally grateful that I was able to go through with this process. ( Music playing )

JEFFREY BROWN: Esa-Pekka Salonen, thanks again for letting us visit.

ESA-PEKKA SALONEN: A great pleasure. (Applause)