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Esa-Pekka Salonen: The years in review

Esa-Pekka SalonenMusic IndustryPersonal ServiceArts and CultureLeonard Bernstein

Here are excerpts of Times reviews, culled from key performances during Esa-Pekka Salonen's years leading the Phil:

July 8, 1985

An oddball program performed with illuminating dash introduced the young Finnish conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, to Hollywood Bowl audiences at a preseason concert on Friday night.

The extravagantly gifted, 27-year-old podium personality, who made his United States debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic last fall, returned to that orchestra with another performance specializing in reconsidered standard works. As he had rethought pieces by Mendelssohn and Ravel for our delectation in November, in July he brought new ideas to items by Leonard Bernstein, Gershwin and Sibelius.

And triumphed. Though the Philharmonic did not achieve its most polished playing on this occasion, it did follow Salonen's lead with enthusiasm.

-- Daniel Cariaga

Dec. 2, 1989

He came. He conducted. He disappointed.

Perhaps it was inevitable. Esa-Pekka Salonen, the music-director designate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is enormously talented. Nevertheless, he is merely mortal. . . .

But something went wrong. Lightning refused to strike. The orchestra still sounded like the solid, slightly untidy ensemble we know and sometimes love. The repertory and its execution suggested a triumph of miscalculation.

-- Martin Bernheimer

Oct. 10, 1992

Lights. Camera. Mahler.

It is official at last. Esa-Pekka Salonen has become the 10th music-director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Or the 11th, if one cares to count the lamented, aborted regime of Georg Solti. . . .

In an obviously sentimental gesture, Salonen programmed the formidable Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler. The same vehicle had inaugurated his international career rather sensationally when, at the tender age of 24, he blithely took over the baton from an ailing Michael Tilson Thomas with the Philharmonia of London in 1983.

His success on that fateful occasion led directly to his first American engagement -- in Los Angeles the next year. The rest, as Nietzsche or Schopenhauer should have said, is history.

Salonen conducts this symphony as if he had written it. He understands the episodic structure, and he savors the conflicting tensions. It may, or may not, be coincidental that he, like Mahler, happens to be a composer, and that he is now about the age that Mahler was when the Third was conceived.

Salonen knows exactly how to contain the inherent sprawl. He knows how to gauge the thunderous climaxes, how to integrate the introspective bliss with the zonking violence. He knows how to brush past the marching-band vulgarity, how to focus the folksy charms, how to focus the exquisite lyricism and how to rattle (no pun intended) the Romantic rooftops.

Most important, perhaps, he knows how to keep the various elements of the symphony in proportion. He favors reasonable propulsion, even when Mahler preaches moderate restraint ("Ohne Hast"). But when he reaches the resolution of the final, otherworldly adagio, he dares to move very slowly. And yet he never seems to drag the tempo, never seems to exaggerate the emotional appeal.

-- Martin Bernheimer

Jan. 18, 1997

"LA Variations" is a happy event. It is a proud statement, its composer wrote in his program note, of "the virtuosity and power of my orchestra." It is a piece, Salonen has also said, that demonstrates finally the not-always easy assimilation of a "Finnish boy" into multicultural, freeway-obsessed Los Angeles.

And containing what the formerly cool, abstract composer says is his most joyous music, it also sounds very much the piece of a proud father whose composition habits have dramatically changed now that he has two young daughters. No longer is his first thought of the day about complex hexachords, Salonen recently told Gramophone magazine, but rather "who the hell is jumping up and down on my stomach at 6 o'clock in the morning." Even Salonen's description of the specific variations uses a kind of musical baby talk -- Big Chord, Big Machine.

Indeed, "LA Variations" begins with a couple of those complex six-note chords but instead of making stern 12-tone music out of them, jumps up and down. The chords themselves are introduced in wonderful upward sweeps and arrive with a big, lush noise. They fragment into sprightly themes that have a folk-music quality. And the piece takes off as a kind of concerto for orchestra.

"LA Variations" sounds original in great part because of the brilliant orchestration. Salonen knows what his concertmaster and first trumpet can do and then puts them together in ways other composers without such players on hand would likely never imagine.

-- Mark Swed

April 20, 1998

Esa-Pekka Salonen comes from a culture with a passion for shocking the system. Finns like nothing better than to bake in a sauna until consciousness reaches the point just short of utter torpor, then run outside lickety-split and jump into an ice-cold lake. The setting is invariably magnificent and the enlivening jolt the plunge causes, the sense of exhilaration and heightened awareness, is indescribable.

And that, in a sense, is how Salonen began the Los Angeles Philharmonic's "Around Ligeti" Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The festival celebrates next month's 75th birthday of the Hungarian composer by highlighting his music over the next five weeks, and it would have been no problem for Salonen to ease into this music. . . .

Salonen, however, fearlessly dove right in with the Requiem, completed in 1965. Here is a perfect example of the European avant-garde that has been so under attack lately for having supposedly destroyed the public's faith in modern music. It has no melody. Its harmonies are dissonant and harsh. The vocal soloists leap and shriek. Symphony audiences don't want adventure, we are told. They come for the sauna, not the lake.

-- Mark Swed

Oct. 24, 2003

Every opening has its snafus. The Philharmonic has done a remarkable job of preparing itself to play in this new hall, and it treated its opening admirably as a concert, not a speech-fest. The ushers didn't have enough programs, however, and many audience members had no idea what was being played or why.

Yet with the "Rite," everything was righted to such a degree that I have never sat through a performance of it which so riveted companions. The clarity of solo instruments, from the solo bassoon in its sour-sweet high range at the start to the wondrous thunder of timpani that vibrated the seats, offered one revelatory thrill after another.

The piece is a Salonen and Philharmonic specialty, and the point here was that anyone who had ever heard them play it in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion had never really heard it.

-- Mark Swed

Dec. 7, 2004

"Tristan" -- the once famously unsingable opera about a love so potent it can be realized only by the removal of all obstacles, those of the physical world, those of life itself -- stretches to the breaking point everyone who confronts it. Any performance that doesn't try too much fails before it starts.

The Philharmonic tried too much. Everything that should have worked, worked. Everything that shouldn't have worked, worked. If the "Tristan Project" is not the greatest moment in the orchestra's history, I can't imagine what was. . . .

And it wasn't long into the Philharmonic's performance of the "Tristan" prelude Friday night before it was clear that something extraordinary was happening. In fact, 18 bars in, when the motif of the gaze, the music of infinite longing and searching, swept through the hall with a luminosity and clarity that felt like sound turned to light, one knew.

You may need no other reason to attend "Tristan" than the sheer beauty of sound the Philharmonic makes in the Disney Hall. Salonen reseats the orchestra, with the violins on the right and cellos and basses next to the first violins, to translucent effect. If you love details in Wagner, and he was a master of them, you will be in heaven. You have to listen fast, however, because it's also a fast "Tristan," full of exciting urgency.

-- Mark Swed

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