Esa-Pekka Salonen is sitting in the café of Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, and his graying soul patch scrunches in disgust at the watery pop song dribbling from the speakers. “It always astonishes me that people who design public spaces don’t pay any attention to the music that plays there, so it ends up being random. That could be a niche for young composers to make some money, designing soundscapes for public spaces.” He tunes out the offending soundtrack and quickly changes topics, but the offhand comment allows a glimpse of the composer-conductor’s entrepreneurial mind. Salonen believes that classical music should be intertwined into everyday life, and it’s up to cultural leaders like him to make that happen.
Though the 54-year-old Salonen was born and raised in Finland and now lives in London, he remains one of the transformative figures of the American music scene. During his seventeen-year tenure as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (which ended in 2009), he reinvented the institution, made orchestral music essential to a pop-culture city, inaugurated L.A.’s new guidebook-cover icon Disney Concert Hall, and finally turned his baton over to the world’s only old-fashioned young conducting superstar, Gustavo Dudamel. Salonen has since retreated into a slightly less hectic life of writing music and leading the London-based Philharmonia Orchestra. (He brings the ensemble to Avery Fisher Hall to play Mahler’s Ninth Symphony on November 18 and, on the following day, a concert performance of Alban Berg’s enduringly shocking opera Wozzeck.)
In theory, conducting and composing should dovetail neatly, sharpening the imagination with practical experience and infusing performances with a creator’s insight. In practice, as Gustav Mahler and Leonard Bernstein both discovered, the two professions have utterly incompatible rhythms. “Conducting is high-octane, intensely social, and short-term: You rehearse, then you perform, and that’s it,” Salonen says. “Composing is the total opposite: slow-burn and intensely antisocial.” It’s agonizing to come off the adrenaline high of the podium and sit down at a desk with nothing but a pencil and a hazy idea—and equally unnerving to move in the other direction. “When I come back to conducting after a composing period, I get unbelievably tired. Halfway through the first rehearsal I think, How does anybody do this?”
The dislocations are worth it. Salonen is a fiercely committed and very fine, though not terribly prolific, composer. A new CD contains two of his recent large-scale works, the orchestra piece Nyx and a violin concerto that won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award last year. Both display the high-speed bravura writing you might expect from an orchestra pilot who understands precisely how close to the edge he can take a fast-moving corps of musicians before it falls apart. As a conductor, he’s known as a specialist in acerbic, rhythmically complex twentieth-century music, and in his own works, the orchestra swivels, surges, and throws off sparks. But Salonen confesses he’s been studying the plush scores of Richard Strauss for clues on how to organize 100-plus players, all sawing, blowing, and pounding away in complex counterpoint, and at the same time keep the texture light and clear. He is a master of the long and lovely meditation. In the final movement of the concerto, the solo violin tumbles slowly through a soft orchestral haze to land on a stratospheric pianissimo. The score doesn’t conclude so much as gracefully vanish over the horizon.
Salonen was raised on a regimen of astringent European modernism, and there are still traces of that legacy in the bristling intensity of his scores. But his California sojourn helped him shake off the jacket of avant-garde rules. There, he savored the lifestyle, the sunshine, and what he calls L.A.’s “remarkable lack of aggression.” He also found himself in the cradle of both film music and Minimalism, in which the passing moment is drawn out into a virtually timeless expanse. Salonen hasn’t so much fused these late-twentieth-century musical extremes as simply left them behind, crafting a style that is hectic, mercurial, motoric, and exuberant. Nyx opens with a quietly bubbling sea of horns that quickly boils over into a sweeping fortissimo for the whole orchestra, the kind of passage that in a movie might accompany the wide-screen vista as the hero makes it to the top of the ridge.
For a former soldier of the avant-garde, Salonen has remained faithful to some pretty hoary genres. An avid lover of technology, he makes judicious use of electronics in his music, and though he hung out with Abba’s Benny Andersson in Stockholm in the early eighties, he keeps pop references out, too. Instead he writes symphonies and concertos, genres that his younger self might have dismissed as antique. “You can put an ensemble together of self-made instruments and electronics and three camels, but it doesn’t guarantee that the music will be innovative or original,” he says. “I use the orchestra because it’s there. It’s an instrument that is global, and these are highly specialized, well-trained people. Yes, structurally it’s very close to what it was in the 1830s, but so are scissors. You can make a paper doll with scissors, but you can also commit murder, and everything in between.”
In recent decades, classical music has tiptoed off the mountaintop and into its own niche, but Salonen insists that its significance transcends demographics, trends, and marketing categories. He recounts a thirdhand, possibly apocryphal story about a group of Swedish musicologists who traveled to Africa to study Pygmy music and wound up swapping tunes with the villagers. The Pygmies were unmoved by Abba, but insisted on rehearing “the music that made us feel like birds.” That turned out to be the slow movement from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. “That’s not abstract,” Salonen says. When the Pygmies listened to Beethoven, what they heard was “a very concrete and unbelievably beautiful metaphor. It’s better than any other way to feel like birds—and safer.”