Picking up the Baton in L.A.
Philharmonic's new conductor wants to help audiences `grow musically'
LOS ANGELES — CHALK one up for the Southern California youth culture. Last week the Los Angeles Philharmonic announced that Esa-Pekka Salonen, a 31-year-old Finnish conductor/composer, would become the orchestra's music director in 1992. The appointment is being seen, at least partially, as a return to the energy, vitality, and podium passion known here in the 1960s under Zubin Mehta, who was appointed music director in 1962 at age 26.
The exuberant Mr. Salonen has a known penchant for the big, the splashy, and the sometimes controversial, and a desire for music that audiences can't hum by composers whose names they can't pronounce.
``He's the most up-and-coming conductor of his generation,'' says Byron Belt, a San Francisco-based music critic-at-large. ``It's a coup that they got him.''
``The first thing I am going to do is try to know more about contemporary American composers,'' says Salonen in Monitor interview, adding that neither he nor most European audiences are familiar with such music.
Enroute following the announcement here for musical duties in Finland, Salonen says he will be scouring L.A. Phil programs for the past 10 years to be sure to enliven the future mix.
Ernest Fleischmann, the Philharmonic's executive director, first saw Salonen in 1983 and began courting him immediately. The young conductor debuted here the following year. He was to have been named principal guest conductor of the orchestra last season, but in one of the teritorial/artistic disputes that allegedly led to the resignation of the L.A. Philharmonic's present music director, Andre Previn, the plan was abandoned.
Salonen will be the 11th music director in the 70-year history of the orchestra, almost all of whom were foreign-born. After 16 years with the Bombay-born Zubin Mehta at the helm, the orchestra opted for Italian conductor Carlo Maria Giulini, then Previn. Though there was no lack of fire with the commanding 6-ft., 4-in. Guilini, the appellation, ``mouse-tro'' had been applied to the diminutive Previn.
``I seem to underconduct,'' Previn told this writer two years ago, but ``I find ... that if you jump up and down, they don't play any louder. So what's the point?''
At least one goal for the Philharmonic has been to fill its dwindling Thursday-night subscription series, which has been lambasted in the press for its lack of excitement.
Salonen has dark blond hair, a slight, athletic build, and flashy appeal. Known only by recordings and isolated guest-conducting stints in the US, he is described by those who have seen him in action as possessing a rare, immediate appeal to audience and orchestra, both in outward flair and musical depth.
In his initial contact here with the press, Salonen was very shy, and spoke nervously - reminding onlookers that English is not his native tongue. His earnestness and erudition seem to exceed his years, but he can easily be made to break into a boyish grin replete with full, dimpled cheeks.
The key to galvanizing an audience, Salonen says, is galvanizing the orchestra. Not wanting to frighten regular subscribers used to the old warhorses by Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, Salonen says the placement of new music on a program ``is not a question of quantity but of choosing very good works to be presented in proper context. Then they will have much more positive appeal in helping audiences grow musically than in just playing contemporary music day to day without focus.'' He says he wants to find a theme, present a few composers he believes in, and ``let the music speak for itself.''
He has been quoted as saying, ``It's very hard for me to understand why everybody's first priority isn't music that has just been composed.'' But when questioned about whether there was a proven audience for new music, he distances himself from the statement: ``I was just saying that to be provocative,'' he notes with a laugh.
Provocation itself is one role of music, he says. Another is spiritual. Those contemporary composers who meet his dual definition are Berio, Messiaen, Lutoslawski, Boulez, and Xenakis, among others. He has recorded Strauss, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Nielsen, Sibelius, Tomasi, and Jolivet. He wants to get to know American contemporary music between the two poles of Eliot Carter and John Adams, both of whom he has performed.
``My experience is that you have to combine things in a way that shows contemporary music is a result of certain historical and stylistic developments in traditional or older music,'' he says. ``If you manage to create combinations that are interesting enough, then it works in terms of attracting audiences.''
A virtual unknown five years ago, Salonen splashed onto the international scene as a first-class replacement for Michael Tilson Thomas, leading the London Philharmonia Orchestra in Mahler's fearsome Third Symphony on only five days' notice. Since then he has led the orchestras of West Berlin, New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Paris, Montreal, Minneapolis, and Washington.
He was known to be on the short list of candidates to fill the New York Philharmonic post being vacated by Zubin Mehta and the Berlin Philharmonic post vacated by the late Herbert von Karajan, both still open at this writing.
After Previn's precipitate resignation in April, allegedly over ``artistic differences,'' much has been made of the orchestra musicians' role in searching for and signing a new music director.
The embattled Mr. Fleischmann stressed that the decision had rare unanimous appeal. ``We must relish the moment,'' he told the press corps last week, noting that such cooperation between musicians and management ``may not happen again.''
Musicians and other Philharmonic insiders, however, say the orchestra is divided over the Salonen choice, with some feeling that the new director is ``Ernest's man,'' and the choice is just one more example of his autocratic control. Some are resisting the appointment for this reason, even though they respect the young Finn.
Salonen's initial contract calls for 16 weeks with the orchestra in three seasons, beginning in 1992. The commitment includes recordings, summer fare at the Hollywood Bowl, and touring. Until then, he functions under the title ``music director-designate,'' with an active role in future season planning, auditions, and selection of guest soloists and conductors. He will have some say in the planning of Disney Hall, the L.A. Phil's new Frank Gehry-designed concert hall, to open in 1994. And he has expressed interest in conducting opera as well.
Born in Helsinki, he studied French horn and composition at the Sibelius Academy from 1973 to '77. He continued studies in Italy until 1983, returning to Finland to become guest conductor at the Finnish National Opera.
He has served as principal conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony and since 1985 as principal guest conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. He is also principal guest conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic. He will continue his post with the Swedish Radio Symphony when he assumes the L.A. Phil reins.
He is also a composer of works ranging from ``Aubades'' for flute, soprano, and strings to ``YTA 1'' for amplified alto flute. He says he will program his own works here if the audiences allow.
One of his priorities is to strenghten the relationship between himself and the Philharmonic's principal guest conductor, Simon Rattle.
It is also expected that Salonen, by 1992, will have to rescue the orchestra from rudderlessness engendered by shared musical influence with Previn until then. Previn will be conducting an average of six weeks per season. Salonen will have only one week in the coming season, and four each season after that.