"I think for me the moment of enlightenment happened when I finally understood that what I have to do is to create an identity for the orchestra that is typical of this place and this time rather than try to import a concept from somewhere else."
THE appointment of Salonen was a gamble. He was seen by some critics as flashy, cold, analytical, inexperienced in the standard repertory. The traditional Philharmonic audience fretted about the amount of new music suddenly on the programs at subscription concerts. And once the Hollywood celebrity machine got wind of a sexy young conductor, there was no telling where that could lead.
"I thought that the biggest risk for me would be to be sucked into this celebrity culture," Salonen admitted, "so I might have been a little too severe in the beginning.
"But there were some really annoying moments, like when 'The Tonight Show' sent a talent scout to my concerts. She had never been to a classical music concert in her life and looked it. So I never appeared on Johnny Carson." Nor would he entertain a request from People magazine to be included on its list of the 50 sexiest people on the planet.
As things turned out, a good deal of Salonen's West Coast education was as a composer. When he arrived in Los Angeles, he still liked to consider himself a composer-conductor, but the truth was that he had stopped writing music.
"The obvious and easy explanation for me to give to people when they were asking why there hadn't been any new pieces for a while was that I had been conducting so much, I had no time," he said. "But that was only half the explanation."
As a European Modernist, Salonen said, he had been inculcated with negatives, such as to avoid melody, harmonic identity and rhythmic pulse. Secretly, though, he was attracted to John Adams, who was then dismissed overseas as being simplistic.
"Only after a couple of years here did I begin to see that the European canon I blindly accepted was not the only truth," he said. "Over here, I was able to think about this rule that forbids melody. It's madness. Madness!"
Without a European musical elite looking over his shoulder, Salonen began to feel that it was fine to have his own ideas. "My focus moved from an ideological principle to a pleasure principle" is how he described the composition of his breakthrough piece, "LA Variations," which the Philharmonic premiered in 1997.
Although a work of great intricacy and virtuosity that doesn't ignore Salonen's Modernist training, "LA Variations" builds on rhythmic innovations closer to Adams. The piece proved an immediate hit, so much so that Salonen was stunned by the reaction and then by the score's continuing success -- it has been taken up by several other conductors and had more than 80 performances worldwide.
" 'LA Variations' was meant as a completely local thing," he explained. "A local guy -- a new local guy but a local guy nevertheless -- writing a piece for the local band for the local audience. That was the deal."
Salonen's legacy is large. The orchestra was very good when he arrived and sometimes great. It is now regularly great. He has hired more than half its current roster of players.
But closest to his heart are the big projects that have helped define the institution as a world leader. A festival of the modern Hungarian composer György Ligeti's works proved that the orchestra could attract enthusiastic crowds for vital new music. A riveting performance of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" played in an acoustically lively concert hall in Paris during a Philharmonic tour in 1996 stimulated board members and donors to finally get serious about making Disney Hall -- which few thought would actually get built after more than a decade of stalling -- a reality.
HIS GREATEST satisfaction, Salonen said, has come from the orchestra's Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Beethoven festivals and its collaboration with video artist Bill Viola and director Peter Sellars on the groundbreaking presentation of Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" known as "The Tristan Project." "When there's a very clear focus, then you can dig deeper and deeper," he noted.
Frank Gehry's landmark, 5-year-old Disney Hall has also inspired Salonen to take chances, to make his boldest attempts to create that cohesive unity within a modern orchestra that he set out to achieve, serving both tradition and the present.
He called Green Umbrella, the Philharmonic's new music series, one of its "great victories." The series, which began before he arrived, had never made any money. For a couple of seasons, Salonen, Fleischmann and current Philharmonic President Deborah Borda had to finance the concerts out of their own pockets, but Salonen persisted in cultivating an audience. Now, in Disney, new music is so popular that 1,500 people or more are not unusual for a program even of composers few in the audience may have heard of.
Salonen won't be around in November 2009 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his Philharmonic debut. "I'm going to give it a short break. I think that it's important for Gustavo to get going without the old guy hanging around too much and all that."
Still, he said he is already in discussions with Borda about projects he might undertake in Los Angeles. He said he would love to collaborate on something with Gehry. Opera too will play a larger role in his career, now that he will have more time for it. Next season, he will conduct Janácek's "House of the Dead" at the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala. This month he began a new post in London as music director of the Philharmonia, but his responsibilities will not be nearly so great as they've been in Los Angeles. He will concentrate on special events and festivals.
Perhaps it's a gloomy Scandinavian thing -- turning 50 is known in the region as "the little death" -- but Salonen, who still looks younger than his age and conducts with the energy of a young man, talks a lot about getting old. He mentions wanting to conduct Wagner's "Parsifal" and write his long-planned opera based on Peter Hoeg's novel "The Woman and the Ape" while he still has time. He said he turned down a tempting offer to conduct Wagner's "Ring" cycle at the composer's theater in Bayreuth, Germany, because life is too short for such a commitment.
He's even become amusingly self-deprecatory about his supposed lost youth. "I have to say that if today People magazine wanted to include me as one the 50 most beautiful people on the planet," he said with a laugh, "I would have a totally different point of view at 50 than I had at 32. I'd be totally willing to negotiate."