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Esa-Pekka Salonen's colleagues share reminiscences
Some glimpses of the conductor from his friends and colleagues who were asked to share a key memory. The reminiscences were mostly written, at the invitation of The Times. Several were shared in interviews with music critic Mark Swed and staff writer Mike Boehm.
One of Esa-Pekka's favorite Finnish jokes goes like this:
Q. What's the difference between Finnish introvert and extrovert?
A. When you talk to a Finnish introvert, he looks at his shoes all the time, but when you talk to a Finnish extrovert, he looks at your shoes once in a while.
When we met Esa-Pekka 25 years ago, he was pretty much an introvert. Being an Angeleno for the last 17 years definitely made him an extrovert. By Finnish standards, of course. The turning point occurred on a tour in Europe a few years ago when Esa-Pekka, while conducting Ravel's "La Valse," got so excited that he stabbed his own head with the baton and then continued conducting while streams of blood were running down his face. At that moment all of us, including him, knew -- the introvert was dead and the extrovert was born.
During rehearsals Esa-Pekka is usually all business, concentrated fully on the piece we are rehearsing. For over 20 years that we have known him, his rehearsal outfit has always been the same: black jeans and black T-shirt. A couple of years ago we were being filmed for some kind of documentary. At the start of the rehearsal, Esa-Pekka told us that the director had asked us all to wear the same thing for both days of filming. One musician immediately replied: "It's easy for you to say!" The timing of this was perfect and everybody cracked up, but Esa-Pekka laughed the hardest and was unable to start conducting for several minutes.
pianist who has made four recordings with Salonen
The 1992 riots began when I was in Los Angeles during the rehearsals (of Bartók's First Piano Concerto). The Philharmonic manager came in and asked us to evacuate the building downtown because it would be too dangerous to rehearse. We both got into the car, and he joined me in the Beverly Hills Hotel that evening. Of course, the concerts were canceled. We had nothing to do, we were kind of stuck in the bar of the hotel where we had an undisclosed amount of alcohol that night. We went on the roof of the building, watching the smoke of the riots. It seemed like watching a Hollywood film, it seemed so realistic and unreal at the same time.
acoustician of Walt Disney Concert Hall
Acoustics in a concert hall can't be heard without musicians on the stage; they can only be experienced through music being performed in the concert hall. This is why acoustics have an "aura of mystery."
We were fortunate to have Esa-Pekka and the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall. The great success of the acoustics in the hall definitely owes much to him and his orchestra.
Esa-Pekka's sense of sound quality and balance in the orchestra is superb, and this will be his legacy. Esa-Pekka could no better explain why he can do this than could Mozart explain why he could compose such beautiful music. We should be so lucky as to always have Esa-Pekka open a new concert hall for us.
One of the first times I actually talked to Esa-Pekka was at a free concert by the L.A. Phil in MacArthur Park. He was conducting Stravinsky's "Story of a Soldier," with sets by the brilliant Chicano artist Gronk. Peter Sellars, who was directing, introduced my wife, Kira, and me to him during a break. He was dressed for the occasion in a colorful Latino-inspired vest and jacket. He seemed incongruous, like he had landed from Mars, and I remember saying to myself, "Somehow I don't think Zubin Mehta would agree to do this." But then, looking around at the scene, I realized that we were all foreigners in a way.
I was originally from New York, Kira was from Melbourne, Australia, and here we were in our new adopted home, Los Angeles, watching a Finnish guy conducting the music of a Russian composer for a mostly Latino audience, performed by a world-class orchestra, itself diverse, and directed by a guy from Pittsburgh with an East L.A.-born art star doing the sets. In the end, the response was fantastic, and I remember thinking that this was truly the global age, that it was correct to feel that we all belonged together that day. That was one of the first times I felt the promise and potential of L.A., and I think at that time Esa-Pekka did too.
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.
For instance, on the afternoon of the premiere of the fully staged version of Richard Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" at the Paris National Opera, right at the peak of last-minute, anxious anticipation from all of us in the hall, he took the time to vividly describe his childhood memory of watching the king and queen of Finland preparing Christmas sausages on television. He had us all in tears with laughter.
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.
Given his enormous curiosity, the explorations into L.A.'s many landscapes increased exponentially in his first years. I fondly remember late-night excursions to Korean restaurants on Olympic Boulevard, where Esa-Pekka would choose a restaurant by the amount of English apparent on the storefront or on the menu -- the less English, the better. There will be a lot said and written in these weeks about Esa-Pekka's impact on Los Angeles. But Los Angeles has had a very great impact on him. I smiled broadly when I heard the premiere of his "Wing on Wing" at Disney Hall in 2004. The piece is a love letter to the remarkable hall and its architect, but it also captures Esa-Pekka's own evolution during his years in Los Angeles. Its freewheeling exuberance and melancholy, its immediacy, its enormous energy could have only come from someone who embraced all that Los Angeles has to offer.
architect of Disney Hall
There was a point in the construction of Disney Hall when I began to hear the hammers and could hear the guys talking and now we were close to getting the balance we wanted. I called Esa-Pekka and asked, "Would you indulge me? The space is interesting and could we share that." He said, "Sure." I then called back and asked, "Could you bring a musical instrument?"
His musical instrument was Los Angeles Philharmonic concertmaster Martin Chalifour, who stood in a hard hat with his violin where the stage would be. My son Sam, Esa-Pekka and I went to the top. All of a sudden we could hear this beautiful sound. I started crying and so did Esa-Pekka. It was the first hint of the sound that we ended up with. I'll never forget that experience.
son of composer Arnold Schoenberg, now involved in the Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna
Esa-Pekka Salonen became a true Angeleno. Sometimes valuable resources have a relatively short life in our city. We are conditioned to and expect change, whether it be buildings or conductors. He navigated easily and triumphantly from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, he was the driving force of the Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts and the New Music Green Umbrella concerts. And his compositions are both for and about Los Angeles.
I recall when I met him, when he first came to Los Angeles, he requested a copy of the Man Ray photograph of my father and very recently he effectively "orchestrated" an intimate family video: pictorial bookends to a memorable but seemingly short 17-year visit.
keyboards, Los Angeles
I have always heard stories from my colleagues about how quiet and shy Esa-Pekka was when he first got here. I find this hard to believe, because these days when he takes the microphone and speaks to the audience about whatever fresh new composition they are about to hear, he's like a stand-up comedian up there! Recently, we saw him pick up a microphone for another reason: to give a speech to us musicians and L.A. Phil staff on the last night of our fabulous Asia tour. The first thing he did was to lament the fact that our hard-working production staff is never able to party with the rest of us when the performances are through -- I thought that was such a thoughtful gesture; a real testament to how his musical "family" here in L.A. has touched him, and vice versa.
cellist who has known Salonen since he was 12 and Salonen was 13 as musicians in a junior orchestra in Finland (Salonen was principal horn)
He wrote his first solo cello piece for me around 1985. We had been talking about this for a long time. He worked on it a whole summer, and the concert was coming closer and closer. The morning of the concert was already there, and I still hadn't seen one note. In the end, he gave me the music when I was going on stage. A friend of ours, the great clarinetist Kari Kriikku, came up with me and turned the pages while I was sight reading on stage.
I like this story as an example of the kind of attitude he had, and we had, toward new pieces. He was absolutely keen and determined to get the piece done, but at the same time it wasn't going to happen any faster than it was happening. Every day he was apologizing, he's working as hard as he can. We both knew that it was going to happen, he wasn't going to cancel the performance, so apologies really weren't necessary.
I've seen him be nervous, when he was conducting a piece of his own. You can see that he's doing two roles at the same time. I remember doing the first performance of his cello concerto ("Mania") in Finland. I thought, I've never in my life seen Esa-Pekka nervous, but at that time I saw him nervous as a composer. The conductor Salonen was trying to help the very nervous composer Salonen who didn't know what to do. That's the only time I've seen him behave in a slightly different way than what he always does.
I first met Esa-Pekka about 16 years ago. We met in Salzburg to begin preparing performances of Olivier Messiaen's miraculous opera "St. François d'Assise." I had already heard what an incredible "musical force" this young Finn was. I can still remember what it felt like -- entering that first rehearsal a bundle of nerves and excitement! And I have to say that even after 16 years, though I've gotten rid of the nerves, I'm still always tingling with excitement as I approach a project with Esa-Pekka. It's because I know I am going to travel some new musical road with him, traveling in a most organic, direct, comfortable, yet sometimes surprising or even mysterious way.
I know I will find a man who truly loves to make music, who loves to live inside the music and who lets music live inside him, but who doesn't ever need to pronounce, explain or draw attention to himself in the process. When one makes music with Esa-Pekka, Esa-Pekka's needs seem to be few, even as meticulous and exacting a conductor as he is. He just "becomes" the music. And if you're lucky, you have enough sense to jump on the boat. It's a great ride.
Maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen and I first met in the lower levels of IRCAM at the Georges Pompidou Center where by chance he was undertaking a tour of the research center whilst I was there with a research project for the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Though many composers visit IRCAM, Esa-Pekka stood out as we met again shortly afterward in Tanglewood where he conducted one of the most exciting concerts of the season with the Boston Symphony during that summer whilst I was assistant to Seiji Ozawa. It was here that we had the chance to share our love and admiration of the music of Messiaen, a musical bond which continues to this day.
Later, during my visits to Los Angeles, our families came to know each other over bowls of ice cream and attending one another's performances. But it was upon hearing "LA Variations" that it became clear of what, along with his tremendous gifts as a conductor, a special aesthetic voice, unique talent and vivid imagination he possesses. The work has remained in my memory as one of the most interesting works I have heard in the past decades. Indeed, in studying works to include on a recent film documentary of 20th century music, "LA Variations" found its way onto the center of the list of works chosen.
As we Californians know, the state has always been a magically special place and for those who were young artists growing up in the late 1970s we took it for granted that if we wanted to express ourselves, we would find an audience. All it took was conviction and audacity. This California spirit has grown, evolved, nurtured and changed over the years, but the region has remained as it historically always has been: a uniquely fertile terrain where artists can grow and shape their identity.
I have had the privilege of seeing him launch his ideas into the world and have applauded along with the many others as yet another exceptional artist with California influences became a hero and went forth into the world.
One of the great musical memories of my life was hearing Esa-Pekka conduct "Tristan and Isolde" in Paris. I had played with him the night before in London, and sort of shamed him into giving me a ticket for the following day.
I flew to Paris in the morning (and later found out that he had so many traveling problems the night before that he did not arrive in Paris until 6 a.m.). I had a wonderful seat in the middle of the Opera Bastille, but was so mesmerized by the orchestra playing that during the first intermission I found a lady in the first row, and begged her to exchange seats with me, which she was very happy to do, since she wanted to watch the stage, while I wanted to watch the conductor! We were both fulfilled -- I will never forget his complete involvement with and mastery of this amazing score.
the Phil's consulting composer for new music
Last fall, I invited Esa-Pekka in to chat with the four high-school-aged composers I mentor at the L.A. Philharmonic. He arrived late, apologetic and tired. But as they discussed his "Wing on Wing," traded insider technical talk and rehearsed the joys and sorrows of the composer's life, he got more and more energized. After an hour or so, we were supposed to let him escape. Instead he said, "Steve! May I come back after the break to look at their pieces?" Those young composers were on cloud nine. So was Esa-Pekka. It's a picture I won't soon forget.