L.A. Philharmonic conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen

Salonen reflects on his illustrious career and 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.

[Clip 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: Do I take from your statement now that you think there is too much conductor worship in our contemporary society?

Salonen: Not conductor alone, but I think that my industry, i.e., the classical music industry, has been an industry of covers. So we do covers, and if I compare this with the rock and pop side, what is the most exciting event?

It’s the new album of a band or a singer-songwriter or whatever, and people are really kind of eagerly awaiting to hear the new piece, the new song. Our industry has kind of retarded into this kind of endless cover-producing thing, and it’s a pity.

I think that the situation is changing gradually, and it’s about us, people who work with these institutions, how we can find the balance to be guardians of the legacy on one level.

Of course that’s necessary, because it really is a miracle how a piece by Beethoven is completely alive today and how it still speaks to all kinds of people of all countries around the world and all that.

That is a miracle and we have to take care of that legacy. But also we have to have this sort of strong contemporary wing in what admittedly is a museum, but there has to be a strong contemporary wing.

Tavis: How do you encourage young minds to take up that challenge? I ask that because there is, of course, a prize that bears your name that the L.A. Phil honors those persons who are writing contemporary music for the orchestra.

But how do you encourage young minds to take up that challenge if and when they know that the old stuff is always going to be more highly regarded than anything they put together?

Salonen: First of all, these institutions, they actually, they’re very interested in finding young talent, composing talent. Of course performing talent, that’s clear. Maybe this is not so well-known among young people who are interested in music, who are talented in music, but they’re trying to figure out how to go about it.

I think we still do have a PR problem in the sense that these institutions portray themselves quite often as a museum without the contemporary wing. For a young cutting-edge person, why would you get into that sort of business, which is very clearly geared towards dead or almost dead people? (Laughter)

But the fact is that there is a lot of interest. That every orchestra I know, every opera house I know, is desperately looking around trying to find new talent, new composing talent, supporting young composers, supporting new ideas, supporting new ways of getting the message across.

So I think we are in the process of getting the word out, and we haven’t done very well yet. But we are trying.

Tavis: I said to you when you walked on the set the very first time we met was a day I’ll never forget, one of the great joys of my life, watching you and my friend Wynton Marsalis do “All Rise” here in North Hollywood with the Phil.

A great day for me. But I’ve never had the opportunity to see you conduct in a place like London. Is there a difference between conducting Stateside and conducting in London or other international destination?

Salonen: Well, the biggest difference between this country and most European big cities is that in a place like London, for instance, there are five orchestras, and there’s a bloody competition between these five orchestras.

On some level it’s good because it keeps everybody on their toes. But somehow, the idea of the local symphony orchestra or philharmonic orchestra being “our team,” like the Dodgers or the Lakers or whatever, that sort of thought never develops in Europe because of this fact that there’s always more than two orchestras.

I like this idea of identification with the local team. I think it’s great. That’s what an orchestra should be. It’s an orchestra for its hometown, and it serves the people.

Tavis: To my mind, and I think even critics have been saying this, the cultural life in L.A. has gotten much better. We’re much more sophisticated, we’re much more cosmopolitan. We are not a New York when it comes to cultural life, but it’s gotten so much better.

Part of that has to do with the advent of Disney Hall, the presence even prior to that of Esa-Pekka Salonen, and across the board, whether we’re talking art, whether we’re talking music, the city is coming up, coming into its own culturally. Would that be – that’s my assessment. Would that be your assessment?

Salonen: Absolutely.

Tavis: Yeah.

Salonen: Absolutely. There is something very special about this part of the world, which is the openness and the curiosity and the lack of prejudice and the lack of generally accepted norms as to what art should be and how an artist’s career should go and all that.

I find that really inspiring. Therefore, lots of really interesting people move here and decide to work here, because of this whole attitude and openness. I’m absolutely convinced that this is just the beginning. In a couple decades we will see an even more dramatic change.

Tavis: When I said “art,” I can mention art, I can mention music; I should mention architecture. Because when you talk about the advent of Disney Hall, you’re talking Frank Gehry as well.

So give me your assessment – I’m going to let you brag just a little bit about what you think the presence, the advent of Disney Hall to our skyline, to our cultural expression, our cultural experience – it’s been 10 years. Give me your top line on what that’s done for the city.

Salonen: I think it’s changed everything. (Laughs) I’m not trying to sound pompous, but I think that in a place where private architecture is very interesting, often, and public architecture is usually very boring, all of a sudden there’s this public building which kind of – which is unique, nothing you have ever seen before.

What is even better is that it, in its function, it’s almost unbeatable. It’s one of the very best concert halls in the world, and the sound is one of the top five or three or whatever.

So it’s just a total success. Of course, this message changed the life of classical music in this town, because all of a sudden people know that there’s a world-class venue where you can hear world-class music, very reasonably priced, and it’s right there in the middle of downtown L.A.

Tavis: You of course helped – you laid the foundation for this. But I suspect, though, you’re happy with the decision to bring Mr. Dudamel here and the energy that he has brought into Disney Hall as well.

Salonen: I think he’s fantastic. He’s amazing, and one of the greatest talents I’ve ever seen in my life.

Tavis: You saw him early on.

Salonen: Well, I saw him for the first time when he was, he won the Gustav Mahler competition in Bamberg, and I was a jury member. I saw him conduct the first day and then I went and picked up the phone and called Deborah Borda at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and I said, “Look, I’ve seen something I haven’t seen before, so you have to invite this guy now.”

He went to the Hollywood Bowl and conducted the orchestra. It was a big hit. Then we started to realize that this is the man. He’s doing very well with the orchestra, and they’re playing very well.

Tavis: How are you dividing your time these days? I know you’re still composing, you’re still conducting, you got a place in London, you got a place here in Los Angeles. How are you dividing your time and your work these days?

Salonen: I’m composing more than before. I’m cutting down on conducting. I’m trying to conduct only five months a year, and the rest will be composing time. I’m trying to spend as much as I can out of those eight months here in L.A., because for creative work, this is a fantastic place.

Tavis: What makes it so?

Salonen: Again, it’s the openness, it’s the curiosity. I feel that this is my artistic home, and I’m very happy to be a California artist together with many others who are not from here originally but who decided to make this the center of their activities. There’s something about that that I find very inspiring and satisfying.

Tavis: This is a long way from Finland. Is this how you saw the story being written?

Salonen: (Laughs) Well, if somebody had told me when I was starting composition in Helsinki in the ’70s that I would end up in L.A. and to describe that journey, those 17 years with the philharmonic and building the hall and this and that, I would have said, “This is a fairy tale of the first order.”

But as it happened, I think it was one of the luckiest things in my life that I came here in the late ’80s, early ’90s, in more than one way. Of course the philharmonic became such a journey and adventure in my life, and a deeply satisfying thing.

But also coming from a sort of very rigid European type of training to this culture which is just a little more open – a lot more open, and kind of curious, and asking different sorts of questions.

Because the problem for me was that the European modernist movement in the ’70s was all about right or wrong. Some things were right and you were dealing with the truth, as it were, and then some things were wrong and therefore not allowed.

When I came here, I realized that art is not necessarily about that. I think truth as an idea should be left to the philosophers and perhaps religious leaders and politicians, and professional people who deal with that idea.

Tavis: Not politicians, Esa.

Salonen: Maybe not.

Tavis: Yeah, not politicians. (Laughter)

Salonen: But let’s say philosophers.

Tavis: Yeah, okay, okay.

Salonen: But people who get paid for dealing with that concept. Art is probably something else. I think it’s people connecting on a very – as high a level as possible. That I kind of understood only after I had been here for a little while, where I realized that the European dogma is not necessarily the only way to look at things.

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 PBS.org – 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.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

[Walmart sponsor ad.]

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: November 11, 2013 at 1:31 pm