COVER STORY : On the Run With the Next Man About Town : Esa-Pekka Salonen doesn't take over as music director of the L.A. Philharmonic until 1992, but his periodic visits are whirlwinds of professional and social activity geared toward preparing for a new musical era

Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer. Times staff writer John Henken contributed to this article

Esa-Pekka Salonen had barely arrived at LAX when an immigration officer asked him just what he was planning to do in the United States of America.

He was here to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Salonen replied.

Glancing over at the small, casually dressed Finn who looks even younger than his 32 years, the official laughed: "You? Tell me the program."

Salonen must have been convincing, because four nights later, he's telling the story to friends over a post-concert dinner at Spago. Behind him is opening night, an evening that began and ended with calls of "bravo" and which set the stage for a demanding but rewarding visit here.

He may look undistinguished after a long international flight, but his stature alters significantly in front of an orchestra. After his closing performance, the intense, handsome young maestro takes so many curtain calls that he actually blushes, placing his hand over his heart.

The attention continues backstage, where middle-aged concertgoers wanting autographs have to get in line behind orchestra members waiting to thank him. "The first time he came was in 1984, and I remember we were absolutely bowled over," Philharmonic principal flutist Anne Diener Giles said a while earlier. "The fact he's here this week and at various times over the next couple years helps get us comfortable with him. It sort of eases the transition."

The Philharmonic's Music Director Designate is on a roll. Everybody's fussing over him, from critics to colleagues. But he doesn't take over officially until the fall of 1992, and like the bride whose wedding is two years away, Salonen has to maintain all that good will and momentum for quite a while.

Salonen is slightly more than a third of the way through his engagement period. He just finished his second round of concerts since his appointment was announced in August, 1989, and he won't be back on the Pavilion stage again until next April. He was marched around so much last fall to dinners, meetings, press briefings and such that he snuck back last spring to do business without performing.

Each time he's here, Salonen works on programming plans, meets new people and checks in with Frank Gehry, the architect on the orchestra's coming Walt Disney Concert Hall. During his visit earlier this month, Salonen did manage to work in some private time with his fiancee, but once she went back to London, the pace intensified. He was out visiting Gehry, dining with Philharmonic executives and attending receptions, press conferences and meetings. He led a recording session at Royce Hall and dropped in on orchestra auditions.

To get a sense of what life is like for Salonen at this stage of the game, The Times asked for and received unusual permission to trail the conductor through all that activity. And whether visiting with reporters, arts leaders or other people the Philharmonic management throws in his path, Salonen is remarkably consistent.

Asked about the constant attention and watching of his every move, Salonen calls it "an ambivalent situation, because if there weren't expectations and positive hopes, there would be no point in starting this. I'm full of hope and expectations. I'm also watching people very closely. It's a two-way thing. If I didn't believe in the potential of the orchestra and my own potential, I wouldn't take on something as big as this. It would be just madness."

Although Salonen has been to Los Angeles on and off since making his American debut here in 1984, he has simultaneously developed a grueling international schedule. He has long been principal conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, touring and recording with both orchestras. He is also principal guest conductor of London's Philharmonia Orchestra, and makes continuing guest appearances with other U.S. and foreign orchestras.

At his first rehearsal with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in late October, an orchestra he hasn't conducted for nearly a year and which greets his coming onstage with applause, Salonen simply walks to the podium and says, "Hello everybody, nice to see you again." Then, amenities over, he picks up his baton for Debussy's "La Mer."

His standard dress for rehearsals is a dark designer T-shirt, jeans and black loafers. He keeps his score open but he rarely looks at it except to turn pages. His jacket is draped over a chair he doesn't use, and his posture is perfect.

But even in rehearsal clothes, he is a conductor for the video age. Not unlike former Music Director Zubin Mehta or the late Leonard Bernstein, Salonen is physically animated. He crouches, lunges, raises his arms toreador-like, moves his body like a cat. "There's a feline quality to Esa-Pekka," says one orchestra member. "He's sensual, like a panther--there's a softness but with a rippling muscle underneath."

"La Mer" is one of the first pieces he ever conducted professionally, and he knows it well. But, he says later, he decided to start over this time, even throwing away his old score and buying a new one.

He has the orchestra play straight through the familiar warhorse before stopping the musicians with comments. But that done, he takes "La Mer" apart almost as if it were a new piece, thanking the orchestra when it works, stopping, starting and stopping again when it is too loud, too slow or simply sloppy.

"We've played 'La Mer' dozens of times," says violist Irving Manning, a man who was playing in the Los Angeles Philharmonic before Salonen was born. "It's a part of our repertoire. But as so often happens, certain passages are taken for granted. The big secret is that he allowed us to play. What each of us possesses was able to get out--it was like releasing a bird from a cage."

Salonen's technique is quite different on Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's "Du Cristal," which is having its U.S. premiere here. On that piece, the orchestra truly is dealing with a new piece, and Salonen works first with only the string sections, then the rest of the orchestra.

Rather, he and Saariaho take the orchestra through the piece. Through much of the rehearsal, the 38-year-old composer has her score plopped on the edge of the stage and is reading along with Salonen and his musicians. Often he turns to ask her a question in Finnish, and both composer and conductor make suggestions to the musicians in English.

At one point, Salonen even asks associate conductor David Allan Miller to take over, then jumps off the stage to hear how it sounds in the auditorium. The string section is very strong, Saariaho explains later, and the conductor was worried that the winds would not be heard.

"We've known each other 15 years and he knows my music well," Saariaho says. "I trust him as an interpreter--he knows what I'm looking for. And because he is a composer himself, he can imagine what the work is about before it is played."

Salonen barely has time to recover from his Thursday evening triumph before he is thrust into a press conference Friday to announce the appointment of Peter Sellars as Philharmonic "creative consultant."

A small group of radio and print reporters are nibbling on snacks in the Pavilion's Founders Room when Salonen and Sellars arrive separately. The two men--who are about the same size as well as age--embrace in greeting, then head off to the corner to chat for a minute before taking on the media.

Philharmonic executive vice president and managing director Ernest Fleischmann starts the press conference. Among the first things he says is that "orchestras are in trouble partly because they've become dull, boring and repetitive. We're doing something about it."

While the Old World Fleischmann, eccentric-looking Sellars and GQ-worthy Salonen appear cut from very different cloth, their notions of revitalizing an orchestra's role in society do seem very compatible. All three of them are concerned about attracting new and younger concertgoers, programming new music, and reaching out more to the city's many ethnic communities and musicians.

There's also been other news at the Philharmonic since Salonen's appointment. The orchestra was barely back from opening New York's Carnegie Hall centennial this September when Fleischmann announced a new Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, complete with recording contract. Coming up are a European tour next spring with Kurt Sanderling and a residency at the Salzburg Festival in 1992 with Salonen.

Fleischmann says later that Salonen's "coming on board provided new impetus and enthusiastic support to our planning." The new Bowl orchestra will give some breathing room to Salonen's Philharmonic, for example, while the Sellars appointment came about in part when the impresario saw how well the two men "related to one another at various meetings over the past year. . . . While I may have originated the ideas, Esa-Pekka has contributed to them a great deal and enthusiastically blessed them."

Back to the conference, where at one point a writer points out that the combined ages of the "thirty something" Sellars and Salonen don't add up to Fleischmann's age--66 in December. And while the formidable Fleischmann laughs aloud at references to his age, he is in fact almost paternal in his willingness to yield Salonen center stage, at least at this point. And he is visibly emotional about audience and backstage reaction to the young conductor.

Sellars and Salonen, meanwhile, say they will talk on and off in future months. Salonen says he's looking forward to their "continuous master-minding," and both say until 1992 they expect much of that to take place in London. Their responsibility, summarizes Sellars, is to bring to classical music a generation "that looks before it listens."

Whenever Salonen comes to town, Fleischmann and friends bring around a few more people to meet. This time there's a reception after the Friday evening concert, and among the guests are J. Paul Getty Trust president Harold Williams, set designer Robert Israel, County Museum of Art curator Stephanie Barron, playwright Shem Bitterman and performance artist Rachel Rosenthal.

After people have been mingling awhile, Fleischmann and Salonen appear and head straight for the podium. A clearly jubilant Fleischmann introduces Salonen, then prods the shy conductor by saying, "They don't believe you speak English."

So what does Salonen--who speaks absolutely perfect English--say? He praises his new colleague: "This is a very special day in the history of the orchestra as an institution because of the appointment of Peter Sellars."

Many well-wishers come by to meet Salonen, who hangs behind the podium most of the evening. He politely greets each person--from KCRW-FM general manager Ruth Hirschman to L.A. Theater Works producing director Susan Loewenberg--but doesn't seem to relax until composers William Kraft and Roger Reynolds come by.

Kraft, formerly a timpanist with the Philharmonic, says that upon hearing of Salonen's appointment, Reynolds sent a cable to the conductor saying, "You could change the music scene in America."

Adds Kraft: "I said I'd be happy if he could concentrate on Southern California."

Salonen is more relaxed day by day, becoming more of a participant and less of an observer. At this month's final reception--with some of the high school and college students who distribute Philharmonic materials on their campuses--he even jokes that one advantage to working with living composers is that you can actually talk to them.

"What we can't do is keep on playing our concerts exactly as we did without paying attention to how the world around us is changing," he says later. Pointing to "alarming statistics" about aging American symphony audiences here and elsewhere, Salonen says that bringing in new and younger audiences is among his top priorities.

Chiat/Day/Mojo advertising company last month began pro bono work for the orchestra, backing up plans being developed by Fleischmann and Stephen Belth, the Philharmonic's new director of marketing and communications. Coming up, for instance, is the recently announced "Philharmonic Style" series--three Saturday nights, starting in February, which will take participants from viewings at the nearby Museum of Contemporary Art through discounted dinners at neighborhood restaurants, pre-concert talks, concerts and post-concert theme parties in the Grand Hall with dancing to Big Band, rock or Latin music. Salonen will be conducting one of those three concerts, and says that in Stockholm, for instance, his concerts attract many young people. And the conductor sees nothing wrong with self-promotion if it helps attract attention to the orchestra. He readily uses both programming and media to convey an image that he calls "slightly more adventurous and less stuffy."

Salonen frequently appears on TV in Sweden via concerts, talk shows and teaching series like one starting next month on Sibelius symphonies. He also hosts a New Year's "Gala Spectacle" on TV and acknowledges that in doing such things, "I've become, for the young people, the symbol of classical music. I don't necessarily enjoy this sort of cult thing, but so many people (felt) classical music was faceless."

For his "Gala Spectacle," Salonen invites in "a gang of young artists and (they) do a crossover thing with contemporary classical, rock/pop and Broadway classics." Last year's event included composers Messiaen and Sondheim, plus work from Kurt Weill's Broadway period. And this year's show may add rock or pop, Salonen hints.

Salonen is staying in a Westside hotel a good half-hour from the Music Center, and he doesn't drive. Different Philharmonic people are taking him back and forth, as do his hosts in other cities.

He currently divides his time between London, Stockholm and Los Angeles. He considers London his home--"that's where I pay my taxes"--and plans to maintain a base there even after 1992. He also hopes to find a hideaway in Italy--a "composer's cottage" in the hills of Umbria or Tuscany.

Since 1984, Salonen has guest-conducted most of the major American orchestras. He once spent a couple weeks in New York "just for fun." He has yet to do that here, and the situation seems to be getting worse rather than better.

"Did he tell you about when we met at Gladstone's and walked all the way to Malibu?" asks Philharmonic violinist Michael Nutt. "He wouldn't have the time now. I can't even get him over to the house for a beer and I live a mile from here."

He may only be 32, but he was "discovered" at 25--when he replaced the ailing Michael Tilson Thomas to conduct Mahler's Third Symphony with London's Philharmonia Orchestra in 1983--and has been careening through the international celebrity circuit ever since.

Salonen's schedule next season, in fact, has eight months worth of rest programmed right into it. And sharing that "sabbatical" will be his fiancee Jane Price. Sometime between his arrival and departure at LAX earlier this month, Salonen became secretly engaged to Welsh-born Price, 31, a Philharmonia violinist who resembles Jane Fonda. Price will resign from the Philharmonia effective Dec. 1, Salonen says matter-of-factly, "because our schedules wouldn't have allowed us to spend any time together."

Their main home will be here. Although his contract with the Philharmonic stipulates only a minimum of 16 weeks, he figures recording and planning responsibilities will require his being here at least five months a year. He has spent some time "vaguely" looking for a house, but wants to get an idea first of different neighborhoods. And he's planning to learn to drive.

He's looking forward to the move, he says. "Things are possible in Los Angeles because of the lack of heavy tradition. I like the openness of this part of the world. You very seldom hear somebody define something by saying, 'This is the way we always do it.' Here, there is no always."

His concerts over, Salonen simply moves his band to the Westside. With not even a day's rest in-between, the Philharmonic musicians haul their instruments and music to UCLA's Royce Hall for an afternoon recording session of Saariaho's "Du Cristal" for the small Finlandia label. On and off for three hours, Salonen takes the musicians through the piece they had just learned the week before for its American premiere.

The conductor and musicians move back and forth from the Royce Hall stage to the recording area backstage. Onstage, Salonen has his baton in one hand, a telephone to the recording engineer in his other. Backstage, composer Saariaho sits directly behind the engineer, both asking and answering questions.

Salonen later says he received several offers from record companies back in '84 and '85 and looked first for freedom of repertoire. Sony Classical (then CBS) "was by far the most flexible and open, indeed, so I went for it." He is recording for Sony, has agreed to a three-year extension of his last contract, and plans to record more with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

He and Sony choose repertory "by mutual understanding" and his choices have been fairly adventuresome. One of Salonen's best-sellers is the Messiaen "Turangalila-Symphonie," says Sony sales representative Thomas Yotka, and Salonen is currently turning out a Stravinsky cycle. He just recorded last month two Rachmaninoff piano concertos with Yefim Bronfman and London's Philharmonia."I like the idea of being able (to program widely)--little lullabies by Sibelius and a monstrous symphony by Messiaen," Salonen says.

While Salonen is here, Yotka is traversing the city--his car's back seat and trunk are full of recordings, photographs and posters bearing Salonen's name. Heading in and out of record stores with his CDs and posters, checking inventory and schmoozing with salesmen, Yotka figures he'll hit maybe 15 or 20 local record shops before Salonen leaves town again.

"He's very definitely an artist we're trying to promote," Yotka says. "The older artists are dying off--Bernstein, Horowitz, Karajan all died within a 12-month period--and we have to invest time and money with (younger artists), particularly with someone as talented as Salonen."

A programming meeting is called for the following afternoon in Fleischmann's office. Philharmonic general manager James Donahue, artistic administrator Ara Guzelimian and marketing chief Belth are in the entryway outside Fleischmann's inner sanctum when Salonen rushes in, late from returning phone calls.

Inside, the round conference table is set with china, real silverware and bowls of pasta, salad, fresh fruit and chocolate-chip cookies. Dishes are passed around the table and food consumed while everyone takes notes.

This particular meeting has to do with a few programs that Salonen himself will conduct in February, 1992--they were added following Salonen's appointment last year--and it is one in a series of ongoing meetings about future programming. The conductor has already waded through 10 years worth of Philharmonic programs and has some very clear ideas of what the next few years should look like.

Concertgoers can expect more Haydn and Mozart but also considerably more contemporary music. "There isn't that much left of this millennium," says Salonen. "The music of this century will in nine years be the music of the last century."

Such well-received visitors as principal guest conductor Simon Rattle and conductors Kurt Sanderling and Pierre Boulez are likely to remain on the Philharmonic's dance card, but encouraging local ethnic and folk ensembles is also "a major political and ideological goal." And expect surprises: The young conductor is considered so inventive at mixing old and new music that one European orchestra manager compares his programming to nouvelle cuisine .

Typical is the program Salonen put together earlier this month of Debussy's "La Mer," Ravel's "Ma Mere l'Oye," Sibelius' "En Saga" and Saariaho's "Du Cristal." Salonen brought together "a young Sibelius (who was also Finnish) and a young Kaija," he said at the student reception a few days earlier. "She's been living in Paris, so there is French music. I wanted to create a frame around the piece. I hoped the rest of the music would show why her music sounds the way it does."

It is a theme he comes back to again and again. "Obviously, there has to be an artistic reason behind how and why you combine things," Salonen says later. "But I don't see this contemporary business as such a monstrous problem. It isn't such a big deal. If you put right things together, it will work . . . I don't like the idea of presenting contemporary music out of context, (like) this is the medicine you have to take and then you can listen to real music."

He also plans annual theme festivals built around 20th-Century music. The first of these two-week festivals, in the 1992-93 season, will be structured around a religious theme, he says. Its centerpiece will be the previously announced Messiaen opera "St. Francois d' Assise" (which will be directed by Sellars), probably complemented by such works as Ligeti's Requiem, Debussy's "Le Martyre de St. Sebastien" and Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms."

While Salonen says he doesn't see himself "as some sort of salesman of Finnish music in California," both more Sibelius and more Salonen works are in the cards. The Philharmonic's New Music Group has scheduled Salonen's piece "Floof" next spring, and, says Salonen: "I feel Los Angeles audiences have the right to see what kind of music I write--to see what they bought."

There will also be more commissions of new music, especially new American music, an area he readily acknowledges he still needs to study further. "It's clearly one of my most important responsibilities, and it's one of the things I feel most insecure about, because of sheer lack of knowledge. Americans know so much about European music, but it's shocking to realize how little we know in Europe about American music."

Salonen does appear willing to do his homework, however. He leaves a long meeting here with Philharmonic composer-in-residence Steven Stucky with lists of scores or tapes to acquire, and later Stucky says he just shipped off to Salonen in London the tapes and scores for at least a dozen pieces. "What impressed me," says Stucky, "was how wide the range of things was that he was willing to consider further. We closed off very few stylistic avenues during that meeting."

Salonen's ideas are equally wide-ranging at the programming session. At one point, when a piece by Purcell seems a likely candidate for a given program, Salonen says he'd like to consider the Purcell piece used in Stanley Kubrick's film "A Clockwork Orange." He can remember the music but is blanking on the title.

When nobody else at the table can recall the title either, Salonen picks up the phone and calls a composer-friend overseas who tells him it is "Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary." The conversation is entirely in Finnish and when he hangs up, Guzelimian jokes that Salonen's speaking Finnish gives him an advantage: "He could say he's sitting here with a bunch of idiots and we'd sit there smiling."

Salonen won't be particularly idle until he gets back here next April. He just completed his tenure as guest conductor of the Oslo Symphony, saying "there weren't enough weeks in the year," but he is contractually obligated to 12 weeks a year with the Swedish Radio Orchestra until June, 1993. And coming up this January and February is a guest stint with the Israel Philharmonic.

Salonen's London-based manager Joeske van Walsum says the conductor's schedule has been as full as he wants it since autumn of '84. But Salonen is limiting his workload much more these days, adds Van Walsum: "It's not a question of finding work for him. We could book his diary 25 times over. Everybody wants him."

The conductor, however, wants some time off. Salonen started planning his coming sabbatical three years ago, he says, because "I felt that by the '91-92 season, I would have been conducting internationally for eight or nine years. I have been traveling a lot and giving a lot of concerts. I wanted to be able to stop and think about things and get a clearer idea of what has gone well, what has been a problem, what I screwed up . . . to look back, study and listen to tapes and recordings and see what weaknesses to get rid of."

Talking about how planned his life is--he knows where he'll be and what he'll be doing far into 1992--he says, "When I start my sabbatical, I won't plan anything. I'll go somewhere and stay there until I feel ready to move on. I have absolutely no plans."

Salonen's visit next April was in fact carved out of his sabbatical, says Fleischmann, and will be his last round of concerts here until February, 1992. But he will be visiting on and off during the next year. And in 1992, after those three weeks in February, there will be a week in April and two weeks in July at the Hollywood Bowl before he takes the Philharmonic to Salzburg for a month.

Coming up soon is a concert version of "Cosi fan Tutte" in Stockholm, but stardom changed his plans there, too. Rather than "expose" himself in a major opera house, he says, he'd originally hoped to do the Mozart opera "privately." Then, he smiles, he learned the production would be broadcast live to 22 countries, "so I will have a couple-million witnesses."

Salonen's smile disappears: "A problem of early international success is that you can't hide anything. No corner is remote enough. Somebody finds you musically. So I feel more pressure than five or six years ago, and I find no way to cope with it other than to work harder."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
54°