Salonen Takes Helm of Philharmonic

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion done up with birds of paradise and chrysanthemums, the Los Angeles Philharmonic celebrated the inaugural concert of Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen on Thursday night.

The 34-year-old Finnish-born conductor has led at least one concert a season here since he was appointed director-designate in the summer of 1989, and in August he led the Philharmonic in a monthlong residency at the prestigious Salzburg Festival in Austria, but there had been no one officially in charge on the Los Angeles podium since the departure of Andre Previn more than three years ago.

At 8:11 p.m. Thursday, as Salonen walked on stage to lead a rousing version of the national anthem, the audience erupted in loud applause and gleeful shouting. Two minutes later, Salonen picked up the baton again to conduct the night's program.

Philharmonic Executive Vice President Ernest Fleischmann sounded a high note on the arrival of the orchestra's 10th conductor in its 73-year-history.

"I feel we're really at the beginning of artistically the most exciting period in the history of the orchestra," Fleischmann said before the concert.

"The symbiotic relationship that's already developed over the last eight years (when Salonen first conducted the Philharmonic) with Esa-Pekka is so remarkable, it's unlike anything I've experienced," Fleischmann said. "There is incredible understanding and respect (between Salonen and the musicians). They really trust each other. Usually these things start off pretty well. They get excited about a guest conductor and after a few seasons it starts getting, 'Oh God, him again.'

"In this case, it's quite the other way around. Every time he's been here there's been a new dimension and somehow he and the orchestra have grown together."

C. Joseph LaBonte, president of the Philharmonic board, was enthusiastic about the orchestra's future under Salonen, whom he portrays as a regular guy.

"We're going to see and hear music in this town that we have not heard in many years," LaBonte said. "He can talk to you about anything, the physiology of music, how it affects people . . . and after rehearsal you see him with his can of beer . . . and he's always got a big smile."

For his inaugural concerts, being presented tonight through Sunday, Salonen chose one work--Mahler's Symphony No. 3, a sprawling, 105-minute composition of varying moods written by the Austrian composer in 1895-96 when he was, like Salonen, in his mid-30s.

The Mahler is the music that first brought Salonen, then 25, to Fleischmann's attention in 1983. On three days notice, Salonen--as in the proverbial Hollywood legend--substituted for an ailing colleague (Michael Tilson Thomas), leading London's Philharmonia Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall.

Fleischmann describes how he heard about the switch, which occurred while he was in London, on the way back to Los Angeles for "some very important appointments" the next day. "I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach that I had to go back" for the concert, Fleischmann said, and back he went. "I had heard the kind of rumors, nobody even remembered his name, but this young Finnish boy, how extraordinary he was."

Joining the maestro were mezzo-soprano Birgitta Svenden, along with members of the Los Angeles Children's Chorus and the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

After the concert, there was a private party held by Sony Classical, with whom Salonen has an exclusive contract.

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