Conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen

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The conductor laureate for the L.A. Philharmonic and a 2014 Grammy nominee shares memories of the opening of the famed Walt Disney Concert Hall.

A lauded composer and world-renowned conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen is one of the most important artists in classical music. He's currently principal conductor and artistic advisor for London’s Philharmonia Orchestra and performs frequently as a guest with the world's top orchestras. He's also conductor laureate for the L.A. Philharmonic, where he made his U.S. conducting debut, and is widely credited with revitalizing the organization during his 17 years as music director. A native of Helsinki, Finland, Salonen studied horn and composition at the city's Sibelius Academy. He actively champions other composers' music and has an extensive recording career.


Tavis: Conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen was the artistic leader of the L.A. Philharmonic for 17 years before turning over the baton to Gustavo Dudamel. He’s now returned to the L.A. Phil for a series of concerts. He’s currently leading the orchestra in seven concerts, including the premiere of Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels.” Yes, you heard that right. Plus Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony and his own violin concerto.

Let’s take a look at Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the London’s Philharmonia Orchestra as they play his violin concerto.

[Video of live orchestral performance]

Tavis: You really consider yourself a composer even more than a conductor, yes?

Maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen: Well, it started out like that.

Tavis: It started out that way.

Salonen: Yeah, conducting was just something that happened by fluke. (Laughter)

Tavis: When you say “by fluke,” what do you mean by “fluke?”

Salonen: Well, I was starting a group of musicians and we had a group of young composers in Finland back in the ’70s, and the real conductors, the professional conductors at the time were not interested in our stuff.

So we felt that we have to have one conductor among the group to do all that, so I was kind of voted to be that one, and I started conducting lessons and I realized that this is actually something I like doing.

So it started like that, but I never thought that I would have an international career as a conductor. It was not part of my plan.

Tavis: What is the joy, the difference between the joy that composing brings you and the joy that conducting brings you?

Salonen: Conducting is intensely social. You work with a hundred people every day. You collaborate, you try to focus their thoughts, you try to give them a concept, you try to inspire them, and it’s actually exhausting. (Laughter)

Because there’s so much energy exchange, so you get back a lot, of course, but you also have to give a lot. It’s kind of high-energy thing. We rehearse for a few days or sometimes maybe a week and then we play the concerts, and then it’s over.

Whereas composing is the total opposite of this. It’s very lonely; it’s very, very slow. I think if you would like to describe composing as an act with one word, “slow” would be the word. (Laughter)

Sometimes you spend nine months, 10 months, a year writing a piece that you will hear two years later or something like that, and you never see anybody. It’s a very different sort of metabolic.

Tavis: Why have you – why or how did this vocation come to you with regard to writing original compositions, writing new contemporary classical stuff, when there’s so much of the old stuff to be (laughter) –

Salonen: Well –

Tavis: I ask that –

Salonen: If we always thought like that, why would we study physics, why would we think of cosmology, why would we do any kind of research? Because we know already so much that there is no one person who can contain all that information.

The same thing with art. It would be very tempting to say that why paint because we have Michelangelo, we have Leonardo, we have all these guys. Why waste your time, because most likely you’re not going to be on that level anyway.

But it’s not about that. It’s about – when an artist works today or whenever, it’s not about creating immortal masterpieces, because that’s the one thing we don’t decide ourselves.

It’s generations after, and so on and so forth. So it’s about writing something that relates to here and now, and something which is about communicating your thoughts and your understanding of what is important to other people.

Therefore, we need new art. Old art cannot do that. It can do lots of other things, and of course humanity hasn’t changed that much in the last thousand or two thousand years.

So that the old Greek dramas are still at the very heart, core, of human experience, but still we need new stuff.

Tavis: I hear your point about the new art – I like that phrase – the new art versus the old art. Are traditional, classical music lovers open to new art versus old art?

I listened to our example about the visual arts, for example. My sense is that people are actually open to seeing new stuff. Are traditional classical music lovers open to hearing new stuff versus Brahms and Beethoven, et cetera?

Salonen: It’s somehow – classical music; I actually don’t like this term, “classic.” It’s wrong, but we don’t have a better word at the moment. (Laughter)

Tavis: I was like, give me something else.

Salonen: Yeah, yeah, I wish I had one. But anyway, our audience, it has been a more difficult process for classical music audiences around the world, and I’m not completely certain why.

If you think of the history, in the days of Brahms and Beethoven and all these guys, almost every concert was a new music concert. To play something old was really an exception.

That somehow changed, and it changed between the first and the second world wars, and somehow what happened was that the hero that had been the composer, the hero now was the performer, and especially the conductor.

There was this kind of mildly annoying mythology about conductors (unintelligible) and riding a Harley-Davidson on an LP cover, and wearing a sort of a leather suit.

I don’t think he ever rode a Harley-Davidson in his life. That was the (laughter) cover. Somehow, conductor as this superhuman conduit between the masters and the masterpieces and the immortals.

I think this is a very disturbing image, actually. But somehow, the sort of commercial parameters of classical music changed after the war, and the whole industry became more backward-looking.

That might have to do with the fact that LP changed the business. When LP became widely available in the ’50s, all of a sudden every household had access to these “masterpieces.”

Of course, if you think of a European or American household in the ’50s, so what were the things that when people started climbing up the ladder, what did they buy? A fridge, a TV, I think piano was the number three item in say ’53 or ’54.

A car. Then access to masterpieces, the sort of series of books where you had the plays of Shakespeare and this and that, and then LPs, where you had the works of Bach and Beethoven and so on and so forth.

So somehow the idea of being part of contemporary culture disappeared out of that equation. But I would say it’s our fault as well, because we kind of cultivated that image with these Harley-Davidsons.

Tavis: I’ve only got a minute to go and I want to ask this question only because the next time I see you, or the next time you come on this program, I want to advance this conversation.

So when you suggested earlier in this conversation that “classical” isn’t the right word and you don’t really like this word but you don’t have a different word for it, tell me what we’re going in search of.

We may discover a word somewhere down the road, but tell me what the discomfort is, and tell me what we need to be – what are we looking for here? What have we been searching for?

Salonen: So okay, we’re dealing with music that is being played by traditional instruments and mostly by orchestra in a specifically built building called a concert hall.

But classical is not – the reference is wrong, because classical on one hand refers to one period in musical history, which is Mozart, Hayden, Beethoven, which is a fine period in musical history, but it was a while ago.

On the other hand, it sort of alludes to some kind of “class,” which A, is not true; B, is kind of detrimental to the whole idea. Because the point is that this music is available and it’s actually relatively reasonably priced.

Student tickets at the L.A. Philharmonic are about $12 at the moment, which is two bucks less than an average movie ticket. I think that normal sort of cheaper tickets are less than 40 bucks at the moment.

So we’re not talking about an elite art form from the price point of view. We have a building in L.A. that is incredibly open, exciting, inviting, and all that, and there’s no reason for this music not to be part of everybody’s everyday life.

Tavis: So the term is too highbrow all the way around.

Salonen: Yeah. It just gives the wrong message.

Tavis: Okay.

Salonen: I would – if I were in a position to announce a public competition to coin a new word, I would do so right now.

Tavis: Yeah, I’m going to do it right now. (Laughter) I’m going to do it for you, and that’s why I asked.

So you can tweet me @TavisSmiley, you can go to our website at – and I’m serious about this. I am curious now. For all of you fans of classical music, let’s help Esa-Pekka Salonen out and see if we can’t suggest to him some ideas of what we’re going to change this word to.

I take his point and I’m just curious. I’m going to be thinking about it myself, and I know you will as well. In the meantime, I want to thank the maestro and the composer and just all-around good guy Esa-Pekka Salonen for coming on tonight.

We are celebrating 10 years of Disney Hall here in downtown Los Angeles. You can’t find, as he said, a more beautiful building. Thank you, Frank Gehry.

You can’t find a more beautiful edifice, and you certainly can’t get better sound and you can’t get better talent than we have here in Los Angeles. Esa-Pekka Salonen, good to have you on the program.

Salonen: Thanks very much.

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Last modified: March 5, 2014 at 12:19 pm