The maestro rocks

Times Staff Writer

Late at night, after he’s conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen tries to clear the Beethoven or Bartok out of his head. He gets assistance from the two young guys who drive him to concerts and back. “After concerts -- that is for me the best moment,” says Salonen. “I’m sort of empty. I have a couple of drinks and then I listen to Foo Fighters.”

Americans tend to warm to classical music as they near middle age, leaving their rock records behind for chamber quartets and orchestral music. Salonen, the impish Finn who’s served as the Philharmonic’s music director since 1992, went the opposite direction: He grew up steeped in classical music -- his musical upbringing was so Germanic that even the harmonies of French composers like Berlioz sound alien to his ear -- but has been drawn deeper into rock ‘n’ roll as his teenage years recede into the past.

In the last few years, he’s gone to a Sigur Ros concert, become fascinated with rock production and tried in vain to understand DJ-driven music. He’s had dinner with members of Radiohead and begun imagining how he and they might collaborate.


Salonen, 44, is hardly the only classical musician to be interested in popular music: Leonard Bernstein drew from jazz and Latin rhythms for “West Side Story,” Schoenberg admired Gershwin, and the classical avant-garde has made occasional use of guitars, rock noise and techno beats. Rock music overlapped, mostly fruitlessly, with classical in the early ‘70s, with now-quaint bands like Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer producing “art rock” songs with pompous orchestral backing. But Salonen’s story shows just how rich, if unlikely, high art’s connection with pop culture can be: The conductor is remarkably free of the “contempt and condescension” New Yorker critic Alex Ross sees in many classical folk over 30.

Salonen, who got together to discuss his interest over a Bombay Sapphire martini, admits he was not always so open. “I was not interested in rock,” he says, looking back at his childhood in Finland, where the romantic-nationalist composer Sibelius is a major hero and music serves as common culture. “I didn’t have a prejudice,” he says. “It just bored me, because of the predictability of it. What would happen in the next bar would be more or less what happened in the bar before.” Salonen was aware of the pop music around him -- the Beatles and ABBA were unavoidable in ‘70s Scandinavia, and he developed a grudging respect for their ability to make a song work in an unforgiving three-minute form.

These days, he’s most interested in bands from the more ambitious, and Northern side of the rock spectrum, like the chanteuse Bjork and Sigur Ros, a dreamy, metaphysically inclined Icelandic band he enjoys despite finding them “a little slow for my taste.”

“He’s been picking up momentum in the last year,” says Matt Johnson, 32, one of Salonen’s two drivers and the guitarist in a Springsteen-meets-Mudhoney band called Telegenic. Discussing and listening to rock music has become a regular feature of the ride home. “The thing he likes most about rock is the energy and power of it, after standing in front of a symphony for two hours. He says, ‘This music is so primitive!’ When he hears a band trying to be melodic, to be clever as musicians, he doesn’t take it seriously.” So Tool works, Weezer doesn’t.

Salonen even admits to an affection for the odd song by Phil Collins, someone whose credibility among the rock intelligentsia is pretty slim. “If you’re a fanatical rock person, there’s a stigma,” Salonen says. “But I don’t have any stigma, because I’m a classical nerd anyway.”

And he’s still got a place in his heart for the band behind “Dancing Queen.” With apologies to the Hives, could it be that Scandinavians have so few rock bands that they have to like ABBA as a patriotic duty?

“It’s not simple to write a good song,” the conductor says, mentioning some of his favorite lieder by Strauss, Schubert and Schumann. A great song, he says, whether “Wiegen Lied” or “Penny Lane,” has a firm identity. Beyond that he can’t say.

“And that’s why 999 of 1,000 songs come and go while one song sticks around. It would be wonderful to know what makes them last; I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. If you think about folk music, these melodies go back 800 years, 1,000 years. Like ‘Greensleeves’ or something. What exactly is the DNA that keeps this alive? As opposed to all the thousands of songs that we’ve forgotten?”

His early days were less catholic. Salonen’s gang of teenage friends -- he calls them “the rigid intellectuals” -- were the highbrow Helsinki versions of London mods or New York punks.

“I was a total fascist,” he recalls. “ ‘This is right, this is wrong.’ This sounds so nerdy, but I hated music that was not organized according to serial principles,” those of 12-tone innovator Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples. “When we had school parties and people were listening to [pop music], I had an LP with me, ‘Le Marteau Sans Maitre,’ by Pierre Boulez.”

Needless to say, this dense, mathematical, otherworldly piece would promptly clear the room. “I don’t think I was intensely disliked for this,” he jokes. “One of the things about Finland is that they like crazy people. They don’t put you on Ritalin quite so easily.”

Salonen wasn’t alone in his inflexibility. “Unfortunately, a kind of horror of popular culture was built into the modernist classical project from the beginning,” says Ross, the rare critic who writes about both classical and rock music. “It’s implicit in Schoenberg’s writings. And then composers wonder why their music isn’t making a wider impact.”

After Salonen left Finland for a postgraduate stint in Italy, he picked up an affection for Italo-pop, the assertive, anthemic music played at halftime at European football games, that he can’t shake. He sings a few bars of it, including an imitation of tenor Andrea Bocelli, who came up through the Italo-pop scene. It’s appalling. He’s smiling.

“It’s horrible, but at some level it’s pure nostalgia. It was 22 years ago, I was studying near Milan, and every night after I had done my work composing, at half past 10 or 11, I would go to a bar. I would have a beer and sandwich and a cigarette. I remember those moments: I existed with such intensity. I just sat there, but I was very much alive, right there.”

And as he returned to Scandinavia, he grew aware of distinctly Northern strains of heavy metal. “Once a year in Helsinki, you see these chalk-white, black-clad youngsters sadly hovering around town” for the annual Festival of Pain. “I wouldn’t necessarily go and listen to heavy metal spontaneously,” Salonen says. His aristocratic accent makes him seem an unlikely aficionado.

It was later, when Salonen was around 30, that he came to listen to rock more seriously, as something more than just background music to good times.

“I think it had to do with my feeling that European Modernist music had come to a cul-de-sac,” he says. “There was nothing below the chin. There was a certain type of energy I discovered in rock and pop music, a focus on how the body reacts to music as opposed to how the intellect reacts.”

The breakthrough came a few years ago, with Radiohead’s alienated, sometimes drifty 1997 LP. “When I heard ‘OK Computer,’ after five minutes I said, ‘I actually get this. I understand what these people are trying to do.’ And what they were trying was not so drastically different from what I was trying to do.”

Salonen met the band’s Colin and Johnny Greenwood for dinner one night when he was in London. “Out of this old habit I started speaking to them about classical music the way you do with an aunt of 85 years old, assuming they know nothing. But, of course, in two minutes I realized these guys know perfectly well. They were sort of amused when I said, ‘Have you heard about this French composer Olivier Messiaen?’ And Johnny Greenwood said, ‘Yes, I own a couple of his old Ondes-Martenots” -- rare early electronic keyboards.

Radiohead is popular among many intellectuals. Brainy jazz musician Brad Mehldau has recorded the band’s songs, classical pianist Christopher O’Riley has performed a recital of them. The latest American Musicological Society conference included several academic papers on the Oxford group.

But Salonen says he’s attracted to the band not just for musical and intellectual reasons, but also because they move him emotionally. He hopes to collaborate with the group in some form. “They’re not predictable, and the form is not boring. There’s a sense of humor and self-irony in the music, which is very rare in the world of rock and pop because those people take themselves very seriously. It’s really refreshing to hear a little bit of distance.”

There are genres of pop he doesn’t get and figures he never will. Hip-hop makes no sense to him. “And then you have the phenomenon of dee-jays,"emphasis on the second syllable. “So these are people who entirely use existing material and create something new out of it? I haven’t got the hang of it yet: I fail to see the greatness of the great DJs. For me this is like what Hollywood does, remakes of old films.”

Salonen also finds the simple harmonies, and conventional form, of most rock music unsatisfying. “In today’s pop music, especially, the way they create variety is not the harmony, it’s the production. The master composer, as it were, is the producer rather than the songwriter.” He started thinking about this when listening to Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” produced by Quincy Jones.

“I think pop people are much better than us in terms of how to produce CDs. We go and record a symphony, and then the whole point is that they should sound the way they do in the concert hall. But this is almost ridiculous. That’s where classical music went wrong at some point. Recordings should not be trying to emulate a life experience. Classical CDs could be much more produced and give you a different take on the music.”

So far, Salonen says, his interest in rock hasn’t changed the way he conducts. But it’ll be interesting to see if it affects his composing. “When I write my own music, I sometimes try to emulate the energy of rock music,” he says. “Also certain sounds -- I especially enjoy the sounds in rock music that cannot be replicated in a symphony orchestra. I sometimes try to find solutions in classical instrumentations, to serve my aesthetic purpose. At the moment, it takes quite a bit of head scratching.”