L.A. Philharmonic's Esa-Pekka Salonen Hits Town . . . Running


Forget the "designate" label in Esa-Pekka Salonen's title as music director-designate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Currently engrossed in 23 hours of rehearsals for Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex," which opens in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Thursday, the 31-year-old conductor is putting in hours this week that hardly indicate his three-season tenure begins in 1992.

Besides days with up to seven hours of rehearsals, his nights are booked with planning meetings that could chart the orchestra's course for at least the next five years, and the sort of social engagements that are also really working hours for a music director.

After the abrupt resignation of music director Andre Previn earlier this year and a brief, clearly pro forma search, Salonen arrived Saturday for his first musical visit as the Philharmonic music director-designate. As such, the hoopla and hype levels have escalated far beyond what could be expected for a mere guest conductor.

Salonen's week here will be filled with meetings with the Philharmonic administration, Sony Classical executives (his recording label), the media and the public. All may have extra-musical agendas of their own for this week, but Salonen is determinedly focusing on the performances.

"This particular schedule is so tight, that there is not much time for anything other than the music," he says. "When I start working with the orchestra, all I think about is the music."

His week began, however, with a working dinner with Philharmonic executive vice president Ernest Fleischmann and other top adminstrators, with similar meetings to come. These will be developmental grounds for Salonen's crucial working relationship with Fleischmann and other key Philharmonic chiefs.

For his part, Fleischmann is quite enthusiastic about Salonen's presence, and discounts a honeymoon factor. "There wasn't one with Zubin (Mehta), there wasn't one with (Carlo Maria) Giulini. I have every confidence that Esa-Pekka knows what he wants and how to get it."

"The basic thing in the planning is the repertory, and then the guest conductors," Salonen says. He offers no specifics about what direction he expects to go in those areas. With the need for long-range planning and scheduling, Fleischmann says that the gaps left by the sudden departure of Previn have already been largely filled, and Salonen's influence won't really be seen until 1992.

The need to make haste slowly in mapping out the Philharmonic future is a leitmotif in Salonen's conversation. "It's supposed to be an organic development, not anything artificially drastic," he says, echoing thoughts he presented at his introductory press conference in August. "It's all about music, in the end."

Also in Salonen's schedule this week is a top-level private meeting to discuss his recording future with the Philharmonic. He will meet today at the Biltmore with Fleischmann and Irwin Katz, Sony Classical (formerly CBS Masterworks) vice president in charge of artists and repertoire.

On Thursday, Fleischmann and Katz will meet again. Katz, who was in London last week to meet with Salonen's European management (Van Walsum Management Ltd.), is in Los Angeles specifically to meet with Salonen to determine if the music director-designate and the Philharmonic will record for Sony and what they will play, he said.

Although Salonen's European agent has announced that the new music director's activities would include recording with the orchestra, as did the Philharmonic when Salonen was appointed, Katz said: "Nothing has been signed, nothing has been committed. That's the purpose of my discussions with Mr. Fleischmann."

When asked about the subject of the meetings, Katz said "Deciding on repertoire; that's my area."

Salonen, of course, has some say in the matter. Though warning that repertory will be the subject of much debate, he does suggest--predictably, perhaps--a Scandinavian of late-Romantic disposition.

"There's one dream I have," Salonen said. "If I am going to do a complete Sibelius cycle, I would like to do it in Los Angeles."

That project may set few hearts, commercial or artistic, aflutter. It should allay the fears of local symphonic conservatives, however, that Salonen might commit the Philharmonic to venturesome new music paths. His lone previous recording with the Philharmonic coupled Lutoslawski's Third Symphony and "Les espaces du sommeil," and won a 1986 Gramophone Award and the Koussevitzky Prize.

Although under exclusive contract with Sony, Salonen also records for the tiny Finlandia label, which is based in Helsinki. Salonen is given dispensation to record mostly new music for limited distribution, a Finlandia representative said.

The recording arena is another area where Salonen does not expect immediate action, although the fact of recording with the Philharmonic, if not when, seems certain to him. "CBS has been under reconstruction since Sony took over. All those things slow down negotiations."

If all this were not enough, Salonen will conduct dinner meetings with the Sony executives after the Wednesday evening rehearsal, with members of the Philharmonic board after the opening concert Thursday, and has been invited Sunday to attend one of the regular private musicales at the home of Betty Freeman, a member of the Philharmonic board and a tireless patron of a coterie of composers great and small. He can also expect the constant attention of the media.

This is the standard routine for music directors, although Salonen faces this baptism by total immersion reluctantly. "Later on, I would like to come back when I am not conducting, to experience the community," he protests mildly, saying he might be able to find a free week in April or May. "It takes time to melt into a community, so far apart--not only geographically--from Scandinavia."

Though he professes much unfamiliarity with Los Angeles and consigns house hunting to the future, he quickly puts his finger on one salient, potentially troublesome aspect of local culture: "I don't drive, problem No. 1!"

That comment elicited his only laughter in a very earnest conversation from Stockholm last week, where Salonen was conducting the Mahler Seventh Symphony and a new trombone concerto with his other orchestra, the Swedish Radio Symphony. There, he said, "It's dark and cold, and getting worse. I'll be happy to get to Los Angeles."

Here, he was met at the airport by a contingent of Philharmonic top brass, headed by Fleischmann. Although the orchestra had Monday off, piano rehearsals with the soloists and chorus began at 11 a.m. and ended at 10 p.m. for Salonen.

"It's interesting repertory we are doing," Salonen says of his pairing of the "Oedipus" piece and Beethoven's First Symphony. "This is the fifth time that I've done this ("Oedipus"). Always I've felt that the ideal coupling is a Classical work. The Stravinsky--its forms and textures--is so classical in the Greek sense."

In between those first Monday music rehearsals comes the first staging rehearsal. Director Gordon Davidson says that the decision to stage "Oedipus" was made as part of the plans for the Music Center 25th anniversary season, and to continue the co-operative ventures between the resident companies--in this case, the Philharmonic, the Master Chorale, and the Center Theatre Group as represented by Davidson.

"I have to do it simply, because its very much a concert performance," Davidson reports of his plans. "There is extremely limited time and space. I'm going to try to create a theatrical world with a scrim and some lights. I'm going to transform the shell, much in the way we did for 'Every Good Boy Deserves Favor' (the Tom Stoppard-Andre Previn work which Davidson staged for the Philharmonic premiere in 1986).

"I would just like to give it a sense of urgency," Davidson says. "There should be an imperative to telling the story. My key to that is the narrator (Roscoe Lee Brown). I'm just going to try to let the piece speak. It's timeless."

Timeless "Oedipus" may be, but the rehearsal and performance of it is definitely a matter of finite, strictly rationed time. Overtime has been scheduled for two rehearsals, to give even the Beethoven 3 1/2 hours of drill.

It is the staging of "Oedipus," coupled with the added planning burdens of the music directorship, that have created such an intense schedule. "Quite frankly," Fleischmann says, "if we'd known he (Salonen) was going to be our next music director, we would have done 'Oedipus' without the staging."

After a week like this, Salonen would seem in need of Club Med. Instead he goes to Cleveland, for Messiaen's "Turangalila-symphonie."

Laurence Vittes and Greta Beigel contributed to this report.

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