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Leaving Dorothy

Times Staff Writer

Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is standing at the crossroads -- literally. With a Philharmonic publicist occasionally darting in to repair the effects of the wind on his light brown hair, Salonen is gamely enduring a photo shoot at the corner of 1st Street and Grand Avenue, where his past is about to meet his future.

The downtown location is more than a little symbolic for the 44-year-old Finnish conductor. From this corner, he can see the Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, stately and symmetrical, the home of the orchestra for nearly 40 years. And across the street, he can see the loopy, contemporary roller-coaster curves of Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry and soon to become the Philharmonic’s new home.

From any angle, the new Disney Hall is grand. But here at the corner of 1st and Grand, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion -- with its queenly portrait of Music Center founder Dorothy Buffum Chandler forever reigning inside in the Founders Room -- remains, well, first.

The Phil performs its last concert at the Chandler on May 25. And Salonen, who began his tenure as the Philharmonic’s music director on its stage in 1992, has agreed to reflect on what an old hall can mean to a young conductor.

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As it turns out, it can mean a lot.

“I’m absolutely certain that when the date comes -- now, soon -- it won’t be as easy as we think it will be,” Salonen says. “There will be the sense of a particular chapter in everybody’s life being closed, irreversibly, and that alone is an emotional moment.”

Salonen responds with mock horror when asked whether the portrait of the hall’s namesake, Dorothy Chandler, will move from the Founders Room of Chandler Pavilion to the new Founders Room in Disney Hall (it won’t). “We’ll have to talk about that; I won’t go anywhere without her,” he exclaims.

She’s a lady from another era, the Chandler Pavilion. Completed in 1964, with 90-foot columns, crystal chandeliers and white marble, mirror and glass interiors. And today, standing so close to Disney Hall -- no right angles, no rules, and insolently gleaming -- the Chandler is looking more than usually frumpy.

Symphony watchers all know why the Phil is moving out of the Chandler: bad acoustics. Well, not bad, exactly, but all wrong for symphonic music. Built as a multipurpose facility, the Chandler’s proscenium stage distances the audience from the orchestra. And with 3,086 seats, it’s just too big, nearly 1,000 seats above the ideal of 2,000 to 2,500.

“There seems to be an absolute limit to the size of a concert hall beyond which you cannot go if you want to create that sort of intense, visceral experience,” Salonen says.

And, he adds, the movable walls that create the orchestra shell at the Chandler are too thin to provide the right acoustics, especially when it comes to bass response.

Bass dominates. At a rock concert the treble speakers are tiny, and the subwoofer responsible for projecting bass tones is as big as your sofa, Salonen points out. At the Chandler, bass sounds don’t bounce off the walls, they just shake them. “The energy of the bass notes is spent on moving the wall,” Salonen says, “instead of moving the audience.”

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Great. Not only is the Chandler Pavilion middle-aged, it’s got no subwoofer. But as Salonen makes his way back to the older building -- dodging construction on Grand Avenue -- he speaks with great affection about the hall in which he launched his Los Angeles career. Even while the Chandler’s flimsy auditorium walls don’t ... woof properly, Salonen observes, “There is the more metaphysical aspect of all those wonderful notes that have varnished the wood paneling over the years. All of those great performances from Heifetz to Giulini live on somewhere in the molecular structure of the wood paneling, yes?”

Salonen is also generous when it comes to the architectural differences between the Chandler Pavilion and Disney Hall. The older building isn’t dated, he says; it’s retro. “Things go in cycles, and certain things that are thought of as being kind of outdated and old-fashioned and sort of hopeless, they come back,” he says.

Salonen conducts his last Philharmonic concert at the Chandler next Sunday: Mahler’s Third Symphony, which is also the first piece he led as music director of the Phil. (That’s not the last Phil/Chandler concert though. Salonen wanted to include Pierre Boulez as guest conductor, and the last two weeks of the orchestra’s season best accommodated Boulez’s schedule.)

Back in his dressing room at the Chandler, Salonen says the personal highlights of his conducting career do not necessarily coincide with the major events that draw attention from the press. Those might include such critically acclaimed events as the orchestra’s Ligeti and Stravinsky festivals, the premiere of Salonen’s own composition, “LA Variations,” in 1997, or the staging of John Adams’ “El Nino” in March, directed by Peter Sellars.

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“Those sort of historic moments, and historic concerts for artistic value, are not necessarily one and the same thing,” Salonen says. “I don’t know how many hundreds of concerts I’ve conducted here by now, and sometimes the experience is such that something happens in a concert that lifts it beyond the standard. It might be just a moment, for some seconds or minutes, or maybe for a complete movement, when you feel that something is on fire.

“For me, this is the most mysterious, but also perhaps the most fascinating and rewarding thing about performing music. It’s this kind of feeling that you have when you go home after a concert and say: ‘I did something better than I can.’ ”

Whether or not it provides those moments, even Salonen cannot deny the historic import of performing Mahler’s Third Symphony as his final act at the Chandler. Not only did he perform the work at the Chandler in 1992, he also conducted the piece almost 10 years earlier, in 1983, for the London Philharmonia at age 24, jumping in to replace Michael Tilson Thomas in a stellar performance that launched an international frenzy in the orchestra world to recruit Salonen.

Among those present at that Philharmonia concert was one Ernest Fleischmann, then managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who immediately began courting Salonen, and invited him to come to L.A. as a guest conductor in 1984.

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“The whole thing was overwhelming for me because this was my first time in the United States altogether,” Salonen recalls. “I check in at the Biltmore Hotel, and I want to go for a walk, and the concierge says it’s ‘not advisable.’ These kinds of things I take for granted now, but the idea of being in the middle of a city and not being able to walk -- I never thought of it.”

On from the Biltmore to the Chandler Pavilion, and a podium that had been home to orchestra legends Zubin Mehta (1962-1978), Carlo Maria Giulini (1978-1984) and Andre Previn (1985-1989). “I see this huge hall, this is the first impression -- just big,” he says. “I wasn’t particularly nervous, but I was aware of the sort of framework, that it was important.”

The cerebral Salonen isn’t one to recount amusing anecdotes about life at the Chandler, but he does remember one rather tense dressing-room meeting. It was in the 1980s, after he had first guest-conducted the orchestra, when Previn was still its music director. Fleischmann had asked Salonen to be the Phil’s principal guest conductor. Salonen came to town for the Los Angeles news conference to announce the appointment. Problem was, nobody told Previn.

“We had a very amicable and nice conversation about this and decided that, under the circumstances, it would be utterly pointless to go through with this plan,” Salonen says evenly. “That was maybe the most bizarre thing that ever happened to me in this room.”

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Salonen also recalls with a wince the dark days in the early ‘90s, when financial problems threatened to terminate the Disney Hall project. “My feeling at that point was if the community is not willing to acknowledge the worth of their own orchestra and this project, is there any point in working in this community?” he says. “If a project is almost served up on a plate and it still can’t be realized, what hope is there?”

It was a point at which he acknowledges he entertained thoughts of leaving. But he changed his mind when he realized that his commitment was to an orchestra, not a building. “What I want to achieve is to make sure this organization is artistically on a very high level, robust in every way; then I can feel that I have achieved something,” he says. “To leave when there are problems ultimately wouldn’t be satisfying, in the end. It would be a personal solution, but not a satisfying one.”

Salonen was 34 when he took over as music director of the Phil, and his name almost never appeared in print without the addition of the word “young,” or, more impressively, wunderkind. When he conducts his first concert at Disney Hall, he’ll be 45 -- still a wunder, but no longer a kind.

“I used to be the youngest, always, now I think I’m well above the average age of the orchestra. It’s an entirely different position to be in,” he says. “And actually, I don’t mind. In many ways, life improves when you get older because you don’t have to prove yourself, you are less interested in how you are perceived. You worry less about things that are not essential.

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“I think that for me, particularly, this journey has been one of opening up, widening of horizons,” he continues. “I grew up in a rather militant milieu in terms of aesthetics, and very much believing in the product of European-style Modernism. And now, I very much can’t say the same.

“First of all, I’m less interested in so-called truth in art, as I have recognized that there are several, and mine is not necessarily better than someone else’s. I am not preaching the way I used to. What was wrong, and what was right -- I used to do a lot of that when I was younger, because I knew. And now I know that I don’t.”

Part of that is age, and part of that is the influence of freewheeling Los Angeles. “It’s somehow simpler here, you do something and people are interested in the thing itself and not necessarily the framework, and how it relates to the existing dogma.” He laughs. “For me this has been a fantastic liberation from my own demons.”

At the moment, however, Salonen plans to maintain one seemingly formal tradition that he began at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion: The orchestra will continue to perform in white tie and tails; before Salonen arrived, musicians performed their evening concerts in black tie and tuxedo.

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“Tails are actually incredibly comfortable, believe it or not, because they are open. And the trousers are usually quite loose, and you use suspenders,” Salonen says. “It doesn’t restrict your movement the way a dark suit does, or even a tuxedo. Tails are so far the most comfortable concert clothes ever invented -- aside from T-shirts.

“After all, we are a symphony orchestra, and the core mission of a symphony orchestra is what it is, and it will not change much,” Salonen adds thoughtfully. “I don’t think that we should lose our identity completely in spite of the fact that we are moving to this fantastic, radical new building. Whether tails are part of our identity or just a practical thing, I don’t know. But I see no practical reason to replace them with something less practical.”

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Los Angeles Philharmonic

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What: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Mahler’s Third Symphony

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: Thursday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 8 p.m.; next Sunday, 2:30 p.m.

Price: $14-$82

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Contact: (323) 850-2000


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