Some months ago, Los Angeles Philharmonic President Deborah Borda and her colleagues were discussing a parting gift for the Phil's outgoing music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen.
"You know, when Leonard Bernstein retired from the New York Philharmonic, the board of directors and the orchestra gave him a speedboat," Borda says with a laugh. "And somehow, we thought we could do something a little more meaningful."
So rather than churning up waves, the 50-year-old Finnish conductor will leave a far more durable mark on the music world as the namesake and inspiration for the orchestra's new Esa-Pekka Salonen Commissions Fund. The fund is for the express purpose of supporting the commissioning and performance of new works, which Salonen has championed during his 17-year Los Angeles tenure. His close friend, architect Frank Gehry, made the first donation.
But that's only one measure of the legacy that Salonen will bequeath as he departs to concentrate on his composing career. Having held his position longer than anyone in the orchestra's 90-year existence, Salonen has helped shape virtually every aspect of the Phil's output, from concert repertory and recordings to a wealth of fruitful collaborations and special projects.
Throughout this season, the Phil has highlighted those various facets, and the effort climaxes this month with valedictory programming that, Borda says, "epitomizes the artistic soul of Esa-Pekka."
Tuesday, Salonen conducted a program for the Phil's Green Umbrella series that included four world premieres as well as his own whimsical "Floof," from 1982. He was scheduled to follow that up with three performances of his Violin Concerto, a world premiere, bookended by György Ligeti's "Clocks and Clouds" and Beethoven's Symphony No. 5.
There have been, and will be, more tributes: successive new releases from Deutsche Grammophon, KUSC broadcasts, friends jetting in from all over the world to raise a glass. (He was so busy he declined an interview request.) And, after a year away, Salonen will take up a new artistic relationship with the Phil that Borda says will be "ongoing and regular." His successor, the Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, will inherit the music director title this fall.
This week, Salonen will close out the long goodbye with four performances of two works by Stravinsky, an artist whom he reveres so much that he once pondered buying the emigre's former Beverly Hills abode when it came up for sale. First up will be "Oedipus Rex," in a collaboration with director Peter Sellars, one of Salonen's longtime creative partners; tenor Rodrick Dixon as Oedipus; and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter as Jocasta. The thrones and masks are designed by Ethiopian contemporary artist Elias Sime, whose work is on view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.
Of course, Salonen's Los Angeles legacy can't be summed up in one concert, or a series of them. During his tenure he hired 54 members of the orchestra. Under his leadership, the Phil earned international recognition both for its performances and its risk-taking programming.
And together with Borda and the Phil's board members and staff, he repositioned the institution to take advantage of its cutting-edge new home when the Phil moved across the street from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to the Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003.
But especially among Angelenos, Salonen also will be remembered for maintaining poise and focus during the uncertain mid-1990s, when it appeared that the institution's ambitious visions of growth and expansion might've been mere pipe dreams, and outside suitors stood poised, checkbook in hand, to try to lure Salonen away.
"He stuck with the institution through thick and through thin," Borda says. "And it would have been very easy for him to have left when it looked as if Disney Hall would not be built, when that entire project collapsed. But he stuck by it, he fought for it, he stayed here."
So what will he leave us with this week when he sets down his baton? Not with "fireworks and bombast," Borda notes. Instead, Salonen has chosen "Symphony of Psalms," Stravinsky's three-movement choral work. Like "Oedipus" it has a time-worn text. But while "Oedipus" imparts a tragic caution, "Psalms" imparts hope.
"So he ends quietly," Borda says. "He ends with a prayer."
A prayer from an artist who, for an orchestra and a city, has already been a blessing.