For Esa-Pekka Salonen, it's been 'a tough year'

For Esa-Pekka Salonen, it's been 'a tough year'
Salonen conducts a rehearsal for the Metropolitan Opera's production of Janácek's "From the House of the Dead." (Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera)
Esa-Pekka Salonen always said he wanted to leave the Los Angeles Philharmonic while he was ahead. In April he did, finishing his 17-year run as music director in remarkable fashion. At the end of his last concert, a quiet chord of Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms" hung in the air for a mini-eternity. The audience rose to its feet in a warm, mass embrace of the conductor with applause. Many wept. Orchestra members lined up and, one by one, hugged Salonen. After 20 minutes, he was red-faced, teary-eyed and loaded down with flowers.

But leaving L.A., Salonen has since discovered, turned out to an unexpectedly "massive thing," which is how he described it when I caught up with him recently. "This has been a tough year in every way."

Professionally, his success rate remains high. He was in New York to make his Metropolitan Opera debut with Janácek's "From the House of the Dead." The disturbing opera, based on Dostoevski's novel about prison life in a Siberian gulag, proved an unlikely hit for the company, with Salonen's conducting receiving high critical praise, as did Patrice Chéreau's gripping production and a superb cast.

At breakfast the morning after a performance, Salonen seemed his old self -- cheerful, engaged in the world around him, ever ready with a dry, self-deprecating quip. He was, he said, finally getting back to normal after a difficult move to London in the summer and a round of bad luck that began with his country home on the Finnish coast 20 miles east of Helsinki, where he likes to compose and decompress.

Active in the Scandinavian environmental movement, Salonen decided he wanted to go as green as he could and have geothermal heating installed. "A team of specialists came from Lapland and drilled four 400-foot holes and left," he said. "But they also drilled through groundwater pockets and polluted the wells in the village.

"I started getting phone calls from my neighbors: 'Look, we don't want to disturb, but we can't use our washing machine, and we are washing our shirts in Evian. Is there anything you can do?'

"This happened last spring during my last week at the Philharmonic, as if that wasn't a complicated enough time. 'Oh, damn,' I thought, 'I'm trying to do the environmentally sound thing and instead I create the worst ecological catastrophe in the region ever.' "

Salonen flew back to Finland directly after his final Philharmonic concert and talked to people in the village. Eventually the problems were solved by his neighbors drilling new wells. And the geothermal design proved sound. "The house basically heats itself from the earth," Salonen explained. "What I learned from all this is that the technology is definitely there to not use any oil at all. We don't need it. Even now we don't need it."

Although Salonen originally thought he would remain in L.A., the move to London ultimately made more sense. Last season he became principal conductor and artistic advisor of the Philharmonia, one of London's five major orchestras. His wife, Jane, is Welsh; they met in London in the '80s when she was a violinist in the Philharmonia and he was its young principal guest conductor. His mother lives in Helsinki. And now that he plans to divide his conducting and composing time 50-50, his Finnish country home is only four hours from London, door to door.

London, however, is a different city from the one he knew when he lived there in his 20s. His two teenage daughters and young son are "Finnish Welsh kids who grew up in the States and their first language is American English, so being all of a sudden in London has not been a simple adjustment." Nor has it been all that simple for Salonen either.

After the last concert of his first season with the Philharmonia in June, he went to dinner with friends and was mugged by three men while walking home alone.

"It was almost funny now in retrospect," he recalled. "There was a short one, a middle one and a big one. The short one had a gun; the middle one had a knife; and the big one had nothing because he didn't have to, since he was so big.

"But, you know, when you have a gun against your belly button, it's a real moment. They took everything. They also hit me, so my jaw was out of functioning properly for a couple of weeks."

That was followed by some health scares, but Salonen says everything has turned out OK.

The health of the Philharmonia has also been in some question, given how hard-hit British orchestras have been by the worldwide economic downturn. Salonen accepted his position with the Philharmonia mainly to do special projects, not day-in, day-out concerts of standard repertory. But suddenly those projects became more difficult to afford.

His first was a nine-month survey of music and culture in Vienna between 1900 and 1935, an exploration of why such an artistic and cultural revolution occurred in the Austrian capital at that time. I heard Salonen in Copenhagen touring with the Philharmonia in June. The program was supposed to have been an ambitious program of Berg's profound Violin Concerto with Christian Tetzlaff as soloist and Mahler's powerful Sixth Symphony. But finances forced the orchestra to drop the soloist and substitute Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night," and replace Mahler with Bruckner's Sixth, which requires fewer players.

Still, the series caught on with the British public and press. "These concerts sold out," Salonen said, "which is not commonplace in London. It showed that people are interested in following a thought rather than just going to any old symphony concert. We are going to continue thinking this way. But we need partners. This was the lesson learned."

And despite the problems, Salonen said he enjoys rising to the challenge of London. "I think the arts scene is unmatched, at least in terms of volume, and the change from L.A. is actually nice.

"In every U.S. city but New York, the music director calls the shots to some degree. Whatever choices you make, right or wrong, become a big part of the musical life in the city.

"And while that is mostly fun and stimulating, it's easy to start to think that you are somebody. And it's very good to have moments when you realize you aren't. In London, so many people come in and out of town that the challenge is to do something that somehow cuts through the white noise of what London is. In the U.S., however, you are creating the white noise. And then you have to do something that cuts through your own white noise."

Next up, Salonen thinks, will be Bartók. "I'm fascinated by the path he took from a nationalist composer to a kind of universal synthesist of folk music elements and very rigid theory. But you don't actually hear the theory, the way you do in Schoenberg. The music sounds as though it just came out like that."

Salonen's own music has been following a similar path since his "LA Variations" of 1996, in which a kind of synthetic folk music gets caught up in huge mechanical processes. But he has not been able to compose anything new since finishing his Violin Concerto for one of his final L.A. programs (actually he was so rushed he finished it after the premiere, filling in dynamics and other details he had left out of the score).

The move got in the way, and so did "From the House of the Dead," which required him to spend nearly two months in New York with rehearsals and performances. But now he has two months to devote to writing, and he will see where his thoughts take him. He says that he would like to write a big piece for soprano Dawn Upshaw, although he's still not quite sure what it will be.

What about the long-postponed idea of writing an opera? "I'm thinking about it every day. When I go to sleep, I think about it. When I get up, I think about it. It's driving me crazy."

And, yes, Salonen will be coming back to conduct in Los Angeles. Not wanting to rain on Gustavo Dudamel's parade, Salonen won't conduct the Philharmonic this season. But he is now laureate conductor, and he keeps in close touch with Philharmonic President Deborah Borda. Beginning next season, he says, he will return annually, probably for special projects.

He might even, like another former music director, Zubin Mehta, keep his house in Brentwood. He put it on the market in the summer, but there were already seven houses for sale on his block alone, and it didn't move.

"For the kids, not to have a house in L.A. feels like a very difficult idea," he noted with a subversive smile.