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Esa-Pekka Salonen makes a brief return to L.A. Philharmonic

Go to youtube.com, type in “salonen” and “bluebeard,” and you’ll get a pretty fair idea of where the L.A. Philharmonic’s conductor laureate’s heart and mind are these days.

The resulting video shows Esa-Pekka Salonen last Wednesday rehearsing the Phil for Saturday’s concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The program, a repeat of Friday’s bill, opens with the U.S. premiere of “Graffiti” by Salonen’s fellow Finn, the composer Magnus Lindberg, followed by Béla Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” based on the enigmatic tale of a nobleman whose new wife, Judith, fatefully investigates what happened to her husband’s former spouses.

It’s Salonen’s first appearance with the Phil since he passed the music director’s baton to Gustavo Dudamel a year and a half ago, and in prepping the orchestra Salonen had plenty to say about “Bluebeard’s” allegorical meanings. (So did psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, but that’s another story.)

“Whatever new happens in our lives opens lots of doors to memories,” Salonen told the players, “and then ultimately we are what we are, we can’t change, and especially we cannot go back to what was once.”

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At 52, Salonen appears to be heeding his own counsel. Professionally and personally, he’s looking forward, not repeating the past, pressing ahead with a slew of new projects.

Even so, there was an unmistakable feeling of homecoming, a touch of nostalgia, at one Phil rehearsal last week, underscored by Salonen’s easy rapport with the orchestra he led for 17 years, the intermittent wisecracks and laughter, the sense of a joint mission ardently enacted.

“I miss the people at the philharmonic,” Salonen said recently over coffee near the Brentwood home that he still keeps although he and his family now are London-based. “And I miss the hall, of course. But I’m also happy that I left when I did, because there were no bad feelings. And I left something for Gustavo which was in a pretty damn good shape. I took it where I could, and then, you know, it’s the next guy. And a damn good next guy for that, also.”

The previous guy, for his part, is keeping busy with artistic commitments stretching from California to Europe. Back in town for several weeks this fall, Salonen has been hunkered down in Brentwood finishing work on a new orchestral piece. Next season with the New York Philharmonic, he’ll lead a three-week festival, “Hungarian Echoes,” inspired by three composers with Central European pedigrees, Haydn, Bartók and Ligeti. He’ll also be continuing his ongoing exploration of Bartók’s life, music and artistic influences with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, where his contract as principal conductor recently was extended through 2014.

During his L.A. sojourn this month, Salonen will be reteaming with several longtime associates. For “Bluebeard,” the role of Judith is being performed by mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, a friend of Salonen’s since they worked together in Stockholm in the early 1980s, and the part of Bluebeard will be sung by bass-baritone Willard White, another frequent collaborator. Next Friday and Saturday’s Disney Hall program, also conducted by Salonen, will bring another favorite colleague, bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, to Los Angeles to perform selected scenes from Wagner’s works.

“I really happen to enjoy working with my friends,” Salonen said. “There’s sort of trust and understanding. A lot of the communication is not necessary because it’s there.”

Martin Chalifour, the Phil’s principal concertmaster, said it has been “definitely a nice reunion” between the orchestra and its former leader. “What has changed a little bit already is the way the orchestra plays,” Chalifour said, citing the difference between Salonen’s baton-centric conducting style and Dudamel’s greater reliance on bodily gestures and facial expressions.

At the same time he’s reconnecting with old acquaintances, Salonen lately has been devoting more time to identifying and supporting next-generation composing talent. Talented young musicians and singers generally can be assured of being discovered, he said, but aspiring composers often face a more uncertain and precarious path to success.

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“The business is tougher now than what it used to be 20 years ago, and there are less commissions around orchestras, opera houses tend to play it safe more than before, go with the established names,” he said. “And there’s just less money around to keep young composers going.”

Making room for a new generation is an assignment that Salonen has lived firsthand. After stepping down from the Phil to have more time to pursue composing, he deliberately kept his distance from the Phil for several months so as not to crowd his 29-year-old Venezuelan successor. “I feel like I’m in a position where I can help,” he said, referring to next-wave conductors such as Dudamel. “So I’m kind of gradually working my way mentally into the sort of seniority, kind of that continuity guy, rather than the new-concept guy, which is also kind of fun. There are certain benefits about being an old fart.”

That self-deprecating self-assessment aside, Salonen suggested that he’s taking middle age in stride. “It’s easier to turn 50 in the States as opposed to Europe. In Europe, 50’s like, ‘That’s it, you’re done.’ But I’m not particularly anxious about this age thing. Not at all.”

If time’s passage is nothing to be feared for Salonen, it’s partly because the past yields fresh insights — some unsettling, others consoling, all intriguing — for the present.

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Last Wednesday, news broke that the Phil in December 2011 will host the world premiere of the prologue to an unfinished opera by Dmitri Shostakovich. “Orango,” a scathing 1932 satire about the sleazy rise and disastrous fall of a half-man, half-ape creature, will be conducted by Salonen in a semi-staged production directed by yet another longtime friend and collaborator, Peter Sellars. Long believed to be lost, or nonexistent, the libretto and piano sketches for the work were unearthed in 2004 by a Russian musicologist.

“Esa-Pekka has one of the sharpest and driest wits of any individual I know, so of course this is perfectly suited for that,” said Deborah Borda, the Phil’s president.

For Salonen, the new work affords a chance not only to grapple with one of the 20th century’s most problematic composers, but to consider how a generation of artists who thought they were building a new world were finally betrayed by their political masters. “I’m absolutely fascinated by this time in history where the artists were the last ones to get it,” he said, speaking of the late 1920s and early ‘30s in the Soviet Union. “Which is kind of funny because quite often the artists are the first ones to get it.”

Historical ironies also abound in Lindberg’s “Graffiti,” a tricky, quick-shifting piece, passages of which are so fast that Salonen in rehearsal compared them to the animated Road Runner. The text is based on graffiti found on the walls of Pompeii, preserved in ash after the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Among the translated snatches, sung by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, are advertisements, political screeds, prostitutes’ come-ons, sexual boasts and slurs and jabs at the financial elite.

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“You could move all this stuff and paint it on the walls of a toilet in a pub in London and you would have no idea that 2,000 years have gone by,” Salonen said, adding that the work’s overall effect was both “oddly comforting” and tinged with “tremendous sadness.”

“You know, all this stuff was written on the walls, and then one day the city was no more. And who knows what happens to us?”

Who indeed? But for the next week, a returning artist and his sometime-home will be simply savoring a moment.

“Pierre Boulez used to say about career, ‘I don’t know what it is. You can’t eat it, you can’t do anything with it, career is useless. Music matters, and career is a by-product of music making.’ But of course the best thing about so-called career is freedom. I don’t have to do anything that I don’t find artistically interesting. And also having got to this point in my life I also know what I enjoy and what I will not enjoy.”

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“These,” Salonen said, “are the only two good things about getting older.”

reed.johnson@latimes.com


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