With Esa-Pekka Salonen, L.A. has been in good hands


In November 1984, a reserved, unknown, 26-year-old Finnish composer made his U.S. debut by conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He looked like a teenage movie star and tended to stare at his feet when he spoke in public. He was dynamic and startlingly confident on the podium, but, as he once put it, he was “absolutely not warm” by L.A. standards.

In 1992, still baby-faced and matinee-idol material, he became the music director of the orchestra. He still wrote music firmly within the European avant-garde abstract tradition. Despite a self-deprecating sense of humor, he exuded the air of a mysterious, quiet, intimidating Nordic intellectual. He was clearly a work in progress.

The Esa-Pekka Salonen who will conduct his last concert as the Los Angeles Philharmonic music director next Sunday afternoon is an open, communicative, imaginative artist -- among the most beloved of our town and time. His funny name is, here, a household name. His image is an iconic L.A. image that has been plastered on billboards, east side and west, for years. And he is widely hailed as having produced the most successful model anywhere for making a traditional symphonic orchestra an accessible part of a modern city’s fabric.


Salonen’s early years in Los Angeles were marred by riots, earthquakes and a recession that darkened the city’s mood and, seemingly, its future. Yet through it all, the conductor generated the excitement to make classical music not a diversion but an essential antidepressant. His presence spurred fundraising for the Walt Disney Concert Hall that most predicted would never be built. His “LA Variations,” an anthem to the city and its orchestra, was an instant hit at its premiere in 1997 and now carries the L.A. Phil sound the world over.

An era, you might think, will, in seven days, come to an end. It won’t.

Conductors come and go. A select few celebrated maestros stick around a long time and build great orchestras. They are the ones for whom the notion of “era” applies, because usually someone completely different comes along and does something completely different in hopes of initiating a new era.

But with the rarest kind of music director the idea of epoch doesn’t mean much. Improving an orchestra is one thing; permanently affecting the way a community sees itself is another. At the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein’s galvanizing force went far beyond the bounds of Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center.

Likewise, Salonen has put a spring in L.A.'s step that is likely to last. He has changed us meaningfully, and we have changed him meaningfully. A catalyst in the classic sense, he came to California as a foreign agent -- a European Modernist from a country with one of the world’s most homogenous populations dropped down on Tinseltown, one of the most diverse places anywhere. People magazine thought him one of the 50 most beautiful people on the planet, but he resisted cheap celebrity. Instead, he made classical music sexy -- and very important. But first he had to find himself.


Salonen is an accidental conductor. He started simply because someone had to conduct his music, and he proved to be good at it. He was fortunate to be from a country where a composer, Jean Sibelius, was the father of the modern nation and considered to be the greatest Finn of all. But Salonen was just as fortunate to be a rebellious spirit who early on recognized the claustrophobic character of his society, fleeing Helsinki for a year to study in Italy.

In fact, beneath his outer reserve, Salonen has always displayed chutzpah. He made his European debut in London at 25, when he substituted at the last minute for Michael Tilson Thomas with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London. He had only three days to learn Mahler’s daunting, 95-minute Third Symphony and just one day to rehearse. He was young, foolish, daring and a sensation. Ernest Fleischmann, then managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a famed talent scout, heard that performance and instantly decided that Salonen and the L.A. Philharmonic were made for each other.

Fleischmann nourished the relationship for eight years before making Salonen music director. These weren’t always easy years. Salonen could be arrogant. As he became increasingly sure of his spectacular technique, he found a showy side. The Philharmonic wasn’t unanimous about Salonen either. He was impressive, but some players thought him icily analytical.

But sunshine and friendliness disarmed him. He moved his wife, Jane, a former violinist, and infant daughter to Santa Monica. His other two children were born here. He first suffered culture shock but eventually opened up.

Salonen bonded and collaborated with other artists who had found their language on the West Coast -- composer John Adams, director Peter Sellars, video artist Bill Viola and architect Frank Gehry -- and his horizons broadened vastly. It was their examples that helped him get over a writer’s block that paralyzed his composition when he arrived in 1992. The abstract musical language of the European avant-garde no longer applied.

Suddenly he had permission to employ melody, harmony, infectious rhythm, and he blossomed. “LA Variations” was the breakthrough, and he hasn’t looked back, with his music becoming increasingly personal.

On Thursday, Salonen premiered his Violin Concerto, finished only days earlier. “Hooray for freedom of expression. And thank you, guys!” he writes to his audience in his program note. Disney Hall was full, and the cheers for the concerto were rapturous.

Salonen has grown as a musician and music director every single year he has been here. But who could have imagined 17 years ago the extent of his accomplishment? Los Angeles audiences eager for new music are the envy of other music capitals. Disney Hall has all but replaced the Hollywood sign as the symbol of the city and made listening to music a welcoming, 21st century experience.

Though long an outstanding, flexible orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic became under Salonen an institution of remarkable vitality and vibrancy hungry for collaborations with adventurous artists from other disciplines.

There is no better evidence that Salonen made L.A. a musical mecca than the fact that he was the inspiration for his successor. This will be one of the rare instances when one conductor passes the baton to the next.

Salonen was Gustavo Dudamel’s boyhood idol. As a young violinist in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, Dudamel -- who is now the hottest property in classical music and who takes over the L.A. Philharmonic this fall -- pretended to conduct toy musicians along with Salonen’s recording of “The Rite of Spring.”

Dudamel’s job is to follow Salonen’s lead by making his own connections, growing in his own organic way, developing yet newer audiences and promoting the latest music. Thanks to Salonen, we now know that all of this is necessary and possible. And an indescribable joy.