Anyone who has seen Esa-Pekka conduct a live concert knows they are in the presence of a genius. What many of them don't know, however, is that underneath the intense, uncompromising focus on stage, and the complex, relentlessly inquisitive mind behind the compositions, there also resides a funny, down-to-earth, Monty Python-loving human being.
A sad, blue day, Mr. Salonen goes away. It's nice to be an important bird, but it's more important to be a nice bird. Mr. Esa-Pekka Salonen is both. I have loved the times I have gotten to see you conduct at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. I'm sure the people of Southern California will always love you. God bless you, sir, and the wonderful world of Walt Disney Concert Hall. Hopefully, the L.A. Philharmonic has been an incredibly good bridge over troubled waters for you. Have a blessed new life in music. The people of Southern California will always love you.
the Phil's former longtime general manager
After I heard Esa-Pekka make what is now his famous debut with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London in 1983, when he replaced Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Mahler's Third Symphony, I wanted to have a chance to spend some time with him. About four weeks later we met up in Gothenburg, Sweden, where I watched him rehearse and conduct the local orchestra. Wynton Marsalis happened to be in town at the same time and Esa-Pekka asked whether I knew Wynton. He said he's been a fan for a long time and that he'd love to meet Wynton. I said, sure, and took Esa-Pekka to Wynton's concert and introduced them. I already knew that I wanted to bring Salonen to conduct in Los Angeles but was worried about the fact that he was such an ardent modernist and how that would go down with Los Angeles audiences. But Esa-Pekka had such a good time at the jazz concert that I realized he had a wide range of interests.
When Esa-Pekka did begin coming to Los Angeles I then wondered about how the music of such an ardent European modernist would go down in symphony concerts. Again, I found I had no need to worry. He came to one of the patron Betty Freeman's musicales in Beverly Hills and performed "Floof," a highly entertaining science-fiction work for soprano and five players. This proved to me that under his modernist exterior, he already had, even in his most provocative years, an accessible, very human side even as a composer.
Of course there are hundreds of memories of 17 years of collaboration with Esa-Pekka. But one of the amazing things is most of these memories don't feature Esa-Pekka as a "personality." One of his most incredible traits is that this person who radiates star power in an unexpectedly elusive and self-effacing way shifts the energy in the atmosphere in a room without making a point of it. He's witty, acute and is himself the butt of most of his jokes. He is a lifelong progressive and the depth and breadth of that commitment has given us in Los Angeles the world's only major symphony orchestra that stands for the future, not just the past.
His intensity of commitment and the quiet glint and sparkle of his vision have given us Frank Gehry's Disney Hall, not only the world's best concert hall, but a permanent image of an open, dynamic, transformative, embracing, creative society that we all want to live in, in the 21st century. Once he's on the podium, this quietly teeming intelligence explodes into a visceral and magnetic force field that elevates everyone in the room, that brings us all to a state of attention that has a sharp edge and thrilling vertiginous heights and somehow at the same time secret inner worlds.
Many conductors, when it's time for a solo from the bassoon or English horn, point to the instrumentalist and bore into them with their eyes emoting every note on behalf of the player. It can be a somewhat oppressive experience for, God knows, the player, but also for the audience and for the music itself. Esa-Pekka has the most beautiful way of inviting a soloist in the orchestra to have their moment, by cuing them and then looking away and listening to their playing. He looks away from them because the moment belongs to them, not to him, and because it's not about imposing his will on another human being. He's interested, genuinely, and he's really listening. He creates a wonderful charged space in which we, like him, like, love and are interested in music.
provost and dean, the Juilliard School; artistic administrator (1986-1993), Los Angeles Philharmonic
One of my fondest memories of Esa-Pekka dates from his earliest days in Los Angeles. His time here had then been largely concentrated in hotel rooms, offices and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, so his worldview had not been so different from his European experiences. On a rare day off for him, we drove up the Angeles Crest Highway and out to the Mojave Desert on Highway 138 toward Pearblossom. That first glimpse of the desert had an immediate impact on him, giving him an understanding that he was in a profoundly different landscape from what he had known.