LONDON — It’s late afternoon south of the Thames. Outside Henry Wood Hall, the first winter winds dance leaves and cigarette packages while dusk further smudges an already-gray sky. Inside the deconsecrated Georgian church, a man is being driven to murder.
His accomplices, the Philharmonia Orchestra and its principal conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, are nearly halfway through six hours of rehearsing Alban Berg’s first opera, “Wozzeck.” In performance, the title character’s transformation from gentle soldier to wife-killer takes just 90 minutes.
The 104 musicians occupy one of the few spaces in London where orchestras can rehearse, their stripy sweaters, suede knee-high boots and rumpled blazers in place of tailcoats. Ten white bass travel cases huddle in the corner like giant tombstones.
The other nine soloists, neighbors, fellow soldiers, doctor and wife, fiddle with their phones, popping up occasionally to help Wozzeck on his way to uxoricide.
All this rehearsal is in aid of the Philharmonia’s November tour of the United States. Of the 11 dates, seven are in California. The concert performance of “Wozzeck” (Tuesday at Walt Disney Concert Hall) is one program. Other concerts will include “Symphonie Fantastique” and Beethoven’s Seventh (Wednesday in Costa Mesa, Friday in Santa Barbara) and Mahler’s Ninth (Wednesday in San Diego).
After Salonen’s 17 years as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, bringing the Philharmonia to California is a little bit like introducing the second wife to the family for the first time. Gallantly declining to compare the two, Salonen does allow that the Philharmonia “is one of the best orchestras in the world. It’s a very young orchestra, and its spirit is that of a youth orchestra. Even the older people have somehow kept the sense of adventure, which is rare.”
The Philharmonia regularly receives good notices and more than one critic has floated the idea that it is the best orchestra in London at the moment.
According to Salonen, the Philharmonia’s strength is its flexibility. “The sound is very delicate and transparent, but also it can be tremendously powerful. They have a very wide range of colors, this orchestra. There’s a constant search for the right sound for any given piece of music. You can play old repertoire like Haydn in a sort of period style, no problem, and then move on to Xenakis.”
Inside the hall, the conductor has called time, the players scurrying off for their dinner break. A couple days’ worth of whiskers brings a bit of softness to his customary Euro-mod uniform of black jeans, T-shirt and shoes. Feigning horror at the prospect of being photographed unshaven, Salonen, 52, agrees on the condition that his mother in Finland doesn’t see it.
In the U.K., backstage quarters are, to put it politely, less luxuriously appointed than most in the United States. Salonen’s room at Henry Wood Hall, with its sagging brown couch and feeble Ikea lighting, has all the glamour of your high school best-friend’s basement.
On the table, some dry ham, cucumber and wilted lettuce lie meekly between two pieces of cardboard doing their best to look like bread. Water and a banana also arrive and we get down to the business of why the orchestra is touring “Wozzeck,” composition commissions, conducting operas and how to start a riot.
Orchestras often play big programs when they tour, but bringing “Wozzeck,” with its monster orchestra, 10 soloists and full chorus, is kind of insane. Moving around that many people is expensive, and while Salonen is an established name, Berg is not.
“It’s an idea that was actually born before the subprime mortgage crisis,” Salonen says, laughing. “I thought it would be nice to do something that isn’t the normal touring thing. ‘Wozzeck’ certainly isn’t. The other reason is that it is one of the most important pieces for me in the entire repertoire and I’ve been conducting it since my 20s. In fact, it was the first opera I’d ever conducted.”
Salonen pauses, smiling wryly at the memory (there’s a reason novice opera conductors usually start with Mozart), “Only now can I fully appreciate the fearlessness of those days.”
When the Philharmonia returns to Jolly Old, Salonen will be staying on in Los Angeles to complete another project he started in his 20s: recording the symphonies of Polish composer Witold Lutos¿awski with the L.A. Phil for Sony.
The orchestra recorded the Second in 1984, before Salonen was music director, and the Third and Fourth were one of his first projects when he took over in 1992. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the late composer’s birth, the Polish government has funded a live recording of his first symphony at Walt Disney Hall to complete the cycle. Remarkably, Salonen isn’t the only constant in this project. According to the Phil’s press office, at least 10 musicians in the orchestra will have played on all three recordings.
On Dec. 7, 8 and 9, Salonen will be back at Disney Hall with the L.A. Phil to conduct more Lutos¿awski, along with one of his own pieces.
Salonen is well known for his devotion to music of the 20th century, but his connection with Lutos¿awski is personal. “He was like my mentor. I find his music to be very powerful and moving. I remember him so well and I miss him still, quite often.” A swig of water, that half smile and then a laugh. “Also it fills my heart with fear, the idea that I knew someone who is now celebrating their 100th anniversary. It makes me realize I’ve been around for quite a while!”
Classical music loves its anniversaries, and in 2013 concert calendars will be awash with Wagner, Verdi and Britten. The more important date for Salonen is April 2, the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” He has taken a break from the piece for a few seasons (“there is other music”), but “The Rite” is still one of the cornerstones of Salonen’s repertoire.
“For me [‘The Rite’ is] astonishing because it’s so completely new, still. When I listen to some sort of early atonal music from the ‘20s, they sound kind of tired to me. Almost academic. ‘The Rite’ is very much alive in the way that Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ is alive or Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique.’ This sort of longevity formula, I’d be very happy to know what it is, but I don’t. It’s just there. Some pieces have it and some pieces don’t.”
Perhaps arranging a riot is key? (A century ago, the primitive dancing and ragged music reportedly was too much for some of the Parisian audience. There was punching.)
“Not even that is a guarantee of anything. We actually tested in L.A. to see how many people you need to start a riot. We concluded that you only need 17 or 18 people as long as they are determined, fearless and obnoxious. I think of the rioting in the Muslim world after the pathetic video thing came on YouTube. Even that was most likely kicked off by a relatively small number of people in the core. Very rarely is a revolution done by the majority.”
When Salonen first moved to California 21 years ago, he felt that changing places helped him get away from the orthodoxy of modern European music. Now that he’s sold his Brentwood home and lived five years in West London, have things changed again?
Salonen’s eyes light up. “I don’t have a car anymore, which I love, after 17 years of driving everywhere. Now I take the bus, the Tube or taxis when I need to. Europe, of course, is not the same Europe that I left. I have changed, but also all these cities are so completely cosmopolitan now. I’m very proud to be part of the European Union. Finland has greatly benefited from the openness and dynamic within the Union, whatever some people say.”
One reason Salonen left his Los Angeles job in 2009 was to make more time for composing. Even with a studio in London and a summer home in Finland, however, finding the time, much less the energy, to write on this scale is nigh on impossible when most of your time is spent on the podium.
Classical music plans its seasons and personnel changes at least three years ahead, so his much-sought-after time to compose is only just now materializing.
“From next year on I am finally at my target, which is that I conduct less than 50% of the year. I’m trying to do things that are only essential to me and not to do concerts just for the sake of conducting. For the first time I am where I always wanted to be.”
If orchestra planning moves like molasses, opera houses make the continental drift look like it happened overnight. As such, when he says, “I have some discussions with some people about the ’18-'19 season …,” it is clear he can only be talking about composing a major work. An opera by Salonen based on Danish author Peter Høeg’s “The Woman and the Ape” has been rumored for at least a decade. Is it finally happening, or is it something else altogether?
The hallway is noisy with musicians making their way back upstairs for the second rehearsal session, and all that remains of the sandwich is the shoe-leather crusts.
Salonen waits a moment, relishing the secret. Then, coyly, “I’m still mulling it over ....”