Salonen Conducts Himself With Grace


The rain had made a perfect mess of my hair, but once I was inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, it just didn't matter--not as long as I got to watch Esa-Pekka Salonen rehearse with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His perfect conductor's hair was flopping about, his arms were waving in the air, his heels were lifting off the podium. From a listener's standpoint, it was glorious. From a viewer's standpoint, it sure looked like a workout.

Salonen, born in Helsinki in 1958, has been the philharmonic's music director for six years, so Los Angeles is home for his family: wife Jane and daughters Ella Aneira, 5, and Anja Sofia, 2.

Conducting is "more a mental thing than a physical thing," the maestro said once we were in his office. "I just signal things through my body, which are essentially musical ideas."


Question: But what about your arms?

Answer: It's actually a very unnatural position, you know. And conductors, even old ones, hold their arms in the air for hours and hours, which contributes to the long life span of conductors. You move your arms in the air--and the average length of a concert's between 75 and 90 minutes--and that's what you do daily, or at least we do. I suppose this is an aerobic exercise built in. But I don't see myself as an athlete or a sportsman or anything.


Q: Your skin had that after-exercise glow when you got done rehearsing.

A: Well, I have a sort of skin problem, however, as many Scandinavians do, which is a mild form of psoriasis. I do have some symptoms, sometimes, which are usually stress-related.


Q: You get nervous?

A: Sometimes, but it is not often and, also, it's not rational. I get nervous for no reason, no reason I can detect. I'm usually not nervous when I should be. And then I can get all of a sudden terribly nervous in some little, remote village where there are three people in the audience. And all of a sudden I'm like jelly. There's no logic.


Q: Did you pretend to conduct as a little kid? I did, and I still am. In fact, just this morning. . . .

A: I can't remember. Actually, I must have done it.


Q: Do you exercise on your own?

A: No, not regularly, but we sweat four and five hours a day because we conductors get a lot of practice. There is one form of exercise I do from time to time, which I find very useful, and this is Pilates.


Q: Oh, do you have a Pilates machine at home?

A: Yeah, I do, because what happens in this profession easily is that if you develop posture problems, you develop back problems because of the constant standing. If you start doing wrong things, you have to be able to register the problem and then correct it. Otherwise, laughter will become miserable. Mostly, when our back starts sending signals, something has already happened. So I think it's important to be aware.


Q: What's your diet like?

A: Well, I try to be sensible about what I eat. I'm not a big breakfast eater at all. My brain works better in the morning if I don't have a huge breakfast. At the moment, I'm eating only fruit.


Q: Do you eat a lunch?

A: I do, yeah. Even lunch, it depends on my working situation. If I have a double rehearsal--say that I have to do another rehearsal after lunch--I eat very lightly: a vegetarian sandwich of grilled vegetables on seven-grain bread or sushi or miso soup and rice. You see, it's a funny profession because after lunch I usually don't eat before 10 at the earliest. I can't eat a huge meal before concerts, so I eat my main meal after concerts. So, it's a funny schedule. And my main meal--about 10:30 p.m.--varies. I eat very little meat, but I love fish--a big fish eater.


Q: Do you eat desserts or sweets? Any bad habits?

A: Rarely. Rarely. Well, I do have bad habits, however.


Q: Yes?

A: Yes, well, I smoke cigars.


Q: OK, anything else?

A: Oh, yeah. I mean, I'm an avid beer drinker, in moderation. This is a thing I've done for 20 years. I mean, I love my beer after a concert.


Q: Can you hear music without conducting in your head? Can you just sit back and enjoy classical music the way the rest of us can?

A: Rarely. I mean, for me, listening to music is quite a demanding situation because it triggers off my professional instincts. I start analyzing. I start kind of preparing notes. If I want to listen to music in order to relax, I listen to music that has absolutely nothing to do with my own field--pop music and jazz. You know, just to get away from what I actually do for a full living.

* Guest Workout runs Mondays in Health.

* A NEW BEGINNING: A commentary on the philharmonic's change in leadership. F1

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