Appropriate Conduct? The Maestro in America in the Year 2001

While many conductors also compose music (Michael Tilson Thomas, André Previn, and Lorin Maazel to cite but three) and many composers have commanded respect with a baton (from Stravinsky and Britten to Adams and Schuler), few have successfully pursued the activities as a joint vocation. Finnish-born Esa-Pekka Salonen, the dynamic 42-year-old conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is thus an anomaly, taking a year-long sabbatical in 2000 entirely for the purpose of composing. Indeed, until his late 20s he considered himself a composer who conducted on occasion.

Not coincidentally, audacious, inventive programming has become the rule rather than the exception in Los Angeles. The orchestra has developed close relationships with a wide range of today’s composers, and the 2001-02 season includes several world premieres, notably Leon Kirchner‘s Violin Concerto No. 2 with violinist Young Uck Kim and three works by the hot young Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov, who kicks off the Philharmonic’s new annual composer residency program in November 2001.

Good Karma on the West Coast

During Salonen’s tenure, new music, and to a lesser extent, American music has flourished in Los Angeles. In the 2000-01 concert season, for instance, Salonen led the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group in a concert titled, “Made in California.” With works by Lou Harrison, Harry Partch (the only native), Jonathan Harvey and Salonen, the theme suggested that California is merely a state of mind. Salonen undoubtedly feels an affinity with composers who have emigrated to Los Angeles to make a name for themselves, and that has become an idée-fixe of his programming agenda.

A case in point is this past season’s hugely successful Stravinsky Festival. Featured were four all-Stravinsky programs in a row, along with a number of panels and associated events around town. As Salonen pointed out at a festival preview discussion with stage director Peter Sellars, Stravinsky lived longer in Los Angeles than anywhere else. He added, half-jokingly, that the festival was really for him: he wanted to explore a figure who so profoundly influenced so many composers such as himself. Salonen even admitted he once considered purchasing Stravinsky’s Hollywood house, until, setting foot inside he realized the aura of the place would be too overwhelming to compose in.

In the 2001-02 season, Salonen and his band explore another modernist composer who spent much of his career living and working in Los Angeles, with the “Schoenberg Prism series,” commemorating the 50th anniversary of that composer’s death.

The theme of West Coast cosmopolitanism also dominates at the Ojai Festival, where Salonen is music director. The 55th annual festival (May 30 – June 3, 2001) looks at “Music of and About the Americas,” and includes a performance by Salonen and the Philharmonic of Messiaen’s Aux Canyons des Etoiles as well as a concert including works by Adams, Golijov, León and Cuban composer Julian Orbon.

Enterprising in Finnish Music and Beyond

Despite his fascination with the California vibe, Salonen understandably carries his own European biases, having studied with Witold Lutoslawski and spent the better part of his life working in Scandinavia. Staples of the Salonen personal canon include not only Lutoslawski, but Sibelius, Ligeti, Bartók, Mahler, Messiaen and Shostakovich. Of the latter, the Los Angeles Philharmonic recently announced the launch of a five-year Shostakovich cycle – with three symphonies and string quartets each season, culminating in 2005-2006, the composer’s birth centennial.

That said, American repertoire is perhaps the most underrepresented ingredient in Salonen’s contemporary programming, but that is quickly changing. He has recently taken a certain fascination in Hollywood (no doubt with the urging of Sony Classical) reflected in a recording of John Corigliano’s Oscar-winning film score for The Red Violin as well as a CD devoted to the film music of Bernard Herrmann. Moreover, the Philharmonic’s 2001-2002 winter season kicks off with a gala salute to jazz master Duke Ellington, featuring mezzo-soprano Audra McDonald.

In essence, Salonen’s interests are bold, diverse and continually expanding. One can only hope that his example in Los Angeles will continue to resonate on the opposite coast and parts in-between.

From Appropriate Conduct? The Maestro in America in the Year 2001
by Brian Wise
© 2001 NewMusicBox

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