"Becoming the Next Bernstein (Or Boulez)"
by Alex Ross
The New York Times, Nov. 27, 1994
Esa-Pekka Salonen is in the belly of the beast. The brilliant young Finnish conductor has begun his third season as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the city of eternal celebrity is making its ominous presence felt. A few blocks away, at the Los Angeles County Superior Court, the self-styled "trial of the century" creeps forward; endless banks of satellite dishes beam the epic trivialities of Judge Ito's courtroom into space. The orchestra's home is the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, better known to billions as the historic arena of the Oscars. Where Sally Field shrieked and Jack Nicholson smirked, where John Williams accepted an Oscar for his score to "Star Wars," Mr. Salonen spent a day recently rehearsing Witold Lutoslawski's intricate, ambivalent Piano Concerto.
A decade ago, Mr. Salonen was organizing sparsely attended avant-garde concerts in Finland. Now, at 36, he holds the most important musical post in the most media-intense city in the world. And he has made his task more difficult by maintaining a commitment to 20th-century repertory. Rather than vanishing in the middle of the season, the Lutoslawski concerto appeared defiantly in the orchestra's gala opening concert, flanked by Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony and Stravinsky's "Sacre du Printemps." A bias toward the modern also infuses the Los Angeles Philharmonic programs Mr. Salonen will conduct this afternoon and tomorrow evening at Avery Fisher Hall, with music of Lutoslawski, Ravel, Schoenberg, Bartok, Sibelius and, the odd man out, Beethoven.
A recipe for disaster? Strange to say, Mr. Salonen's tenure has been an unqualified success. Subscriptions are up, while the average age of the audience has declined, showing an incursion of younger listeners. One can credit the canny long-range planning of Ernest Fleischmann, the orchestra's managing director, or the aggressive marketing campaign that has plastered the maestro's boyish good looks around town. But the essential factors are Mr. Salonen's conducting, which has a graceful dynamism about it, and his programming, which puts forward a very distinct musical world-view.
Mr. Salonen appears to be making headway against the toughest problem facing the American orchestra: the aging of the established audience and the deepening indifference of younger generations. Is he the next Leonard Bernstein, the ardently awaited savior figure, able to explain the unfamiliar and build audiences over time? Or is he the next Pierre Boulez, first enticing but eventually exhausting listeners with a severe contemporary diet?
It's too early to say, but Mr. Salonen is most likely neither. He does not possess Bernstein's demagogic glamour or Mr. Boulez's didactic focus. He does, however, provide the kind of decisive regional leadership that American orchestras most need right now, more than any across-the-board miracle cure. Audiences take notice when an orchestra acquires a vision overnight.
MR. SALONEN BEGAN AS A composer, not a conductor, and he still pursues composing when time allows. He grew up in an aberrant musical culture that treats composers with respect. Like other Scandinavian countries, Finland gives generous support to the arts, and composers are lavished with commissions and grants.
"It was like a bloody greenhouse," Mr. Salonen said between rehearsals, speaking impeccable British-accented English. "Until I was about 25, I never gave any thought to the pragmatic aspects of music-making, such as having an audience. Sometimes we had contemporary-music concerts, and maybe four people would come, including my mother."
His base was the Finnish avant-garde collective Ears Open, which he formed with the composers Magnus Lindberg, Jouni Kaipainen and Kaija Saariaho. Their works deployed a full range of post-Serialist devices, although they avoided the major pitfalls of European esotericism. Even the most teemingly complex music from this group had an overall lucidity of structure, a kind of landscape wholeness characteristic of Scandinavian music in all periods. Mr. Salonen's music, which has been collected on a Finlandia disk, is extrovert and eclectic, scampering through minutely detailed motifs and timbres.
More or less by default, Mr. Salonen conducted Ears Open concerts. "I never planned a career as a conductor," he said. "When I was studying composition, I looked at conductors as the main enemies of music. The image of Karajan conducting 'Heldenleben' and riding a motorbike in his leather jacket was very far removed from the things we were trying to do. It happened very gradually, but I started feeling the pull of Bruckner and Beethoven, not to mention the 20th-century classics, and they just gradually took over."
In storybook fashion, he burst on the international scene in 1983, summoned at the last minute to conduct the London Philharmonia in Mahler's Third Symphony. His overnight triumph led to a full-time appointment with the Swedish Radio Symphony and an American debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1984. A subsequent contract with Sony Classical has produced dozens of recordings, among them definitive accounts of major works by Messiaen and Lutoslawski, an excellent Stravinsky series and one of the best modern versions of Mahler's Fourth Symphony. After a stint as principal guest conductor, Mr. Salonen replaced Andre Previn as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's music director in 1992.
From the evidence of two recent rehearsals, he has established an easy rapport with The orchestra. He takes a cool, understated approach, not at all dictatorial. Indeed, he has a tendency to mumble. Rehearsing "Le Sacre du Printemps," he made brief remarks that were inaudible from the front seats in the auditorium and possibly to many of the players as well. But his wishes are conveyed all the same; on a second try, the passage in question came into sharper focus. Balancing on the balls of his feet in a gymnastic stance, nervously gesticulating toward his ears when something displeases him, he is unmistakably in command. The orchestra sounds better than ever, clearly in the front rank of American ensembles.
Any conductor in Los Angeles must also establish a good rapport with Mr. Fleischmann, renowned for his sometimes domineering treatment of conductors and his controversial ideas about the role of the modern orchestra. Serving as music director in the Fleischmann regime entails any number of tasks outside the regular subscription schedule: leading contemporary-music and chamber-orchestra ensembles, delivering preconcert lectures, conducting youth concerts, and traveling with the orchestra to Los Angeles neighborhoods and schools that have no easy access to orchestral music.
Pronouncing the traditional orchestra an outdated institution, Mr. Fleischmann has called for a more flexible "community of musicians" to take its place. Yet he is severely critical of the 1993 American Symphony Orchestra League report, "Americanizing the American Orchestra," which proposed that orchestras abandon an elite stance and literally dress themselves down for different audiences.
"All that has nothing to do with what we're here for," Mr. Fleischmann said. "No matter what the origin or background of the audience, it still recognizes quality, and it still recognizes integrity. If we pursue a clear artistic direction, people will become more passionate about what we do."
Mr. Salonen is of the same mind. "I don't think anything drastic is needed," he said, "because obviously we are acting on the basic hypothesis that classical music is good, that classical music has to exist. We don't need to wear different clothes or funny hats, and we don't have to deny the basic fact that symphony orchestras are specialist groups who play certain segments of the music of the world. Either this music we play has enough energy and a message intense enough to be able to survive, or it doesn't."
The radical point in Mr. Salonen's agenda is his insistence that the repertory be centered on the music of this century. "If you want to reach a young person who has not learned classical music at home or in the schools, the best repertory is 20th-century repertory rather than Mozart or Haydn or Beethoven. Just because of the familiarity of the sound world, something like 'Le Sacre' gives you a sense of recognition, even if your only point of reference is rock music. It doesn't belong to the establishment; there is no political or class difference."
Many conductors make earnest gestures toward contemporary music, programming the work of the temporarily popular composer X or the critically fashionable composer Y. Mr. Salonen's commitment goes deeper. Some two-thirds of the scores he has conducted in the last three years were written in this century: among them, four works of Schoenberg, seven of Stravinsky and four of Lutoslawski, alongside music of Henri Dutilleux, Gyorgy Ligeti, Luciano Berio, Roger Reynolds, Elliott Carter, Steven Stucky, Bernard Rands and Kaija Saariaho.
With 20th-century music, presentation is everything. The longstanding method of tempting audiences with a war horse, then sneaking in a premiere beside it often falls flat, because it fails to establish a context for the new piece; the discrepancy between old and new is all the more plain. (One is reminded of the Bernstein concert that absurdly paired John Cage's "Atlas Eclipticalis" with Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony.)
MR. SALONEN, BY contrast, relies on what he calls 20th-century classics: works of Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartok that are foreign neither to the average concertgoer nor to the newer pieces he is advocating. An elegant example was a 1993 juxtaposition of Debussy and Ligeti, in which Mr. Ligeti's intensely atmospheric instrumental style could be heard beside its Impressionist predecessor.
This blend of the shocking and the no-longer-shocking took a while to catch on. "After a kind of hesitant beginning," Mr. Salonen recalled, "something happened in the spring of the first season. All of a sudden the kind of program that was selling out at the box office was Bartok's Second Violin Concerto and a Haydn symphony." He sensed he was beginning to reach out to an audience that ordinarily paid no attention to orchestral concerts.
"There's a crowd that goes to contemporary art exhibitions, art cinema and so forth," he continued, "people who basically use their brains more than average people, but they don't come to classical-music concerts. They don't see a symphony orchestra as part of the contemporary art scene. But now they've started to realize that the Philharmonic is moving into this century."
Mr. Salonen's new audience, if it stays interested, could have far-reaching implications for the way concerts are sold. "I think we are coming to a point where it will be increasingly difficult to market all your subscriptions as one package," he said. "People in my generation and the younger generation are more eclectic in their tastes, very specific about what they want to do. I would like to be a part of that kind of menu."
Mr. Salonen is one of several younger conductors who have shaken up orchestral and also operatic programming in recent years. Simon Rattle, Kent Nagano and Myung-Whun Chung are the best known, and Mr. Salonen considers them allies, not rivals. In particular, Mr, Rattle's remarkable achievement in building an audience for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra through unconventional repertory is a good omen for the new Los Angeles regime.
A SLIGHTLY LESS ENCOURAGING analogy is Pierre Boulez's iconoclastic seven-year tenure with the New York Philharmonic in the 1970's. Mr. Salonen acknowledges the "slightly frightening parallel" between his career and that of Mr. Boulez, whom he admires and speaks to often. But there are important differences.
First, Mr. Salonen does not disdain the standard repertory; he is an acclaimed Haydn conductor, and his Beethoven interpretations (in contrast to Mr. Boulez's) seem to have pleased rather than alienated the broad public. He also has a filial enthusiasm for widely beloved Scandinavian Romantics like Grieg, Sibelius and Nielsen. Second, the contemporary music Mr. Salonen has promoted in Los Angeles is generally not the sort that drives audiences away. He is openly critical of some of the more unsociable trends of the postwar era, particularly Serialism.
"The basic assumption in Serial music was that language could be created," he said. "But language can't be created, unless you happen to be some kind of god. To make it functional, you also have to create people who speak the same language. It's like Esperanto; if you look at Esperanto from an objective point of view, it's the best language in the world, because it's absolutely logical, solid, very easy to learn, no dialects, no problems or exceptions in the grammar. Yet no one speaks it. The same thing happened to Serialism."
He does not sympathize, however, with the neo-conservatives who disavow the whole postwar avant-garde as an erroneous detour. "There was still a lot of good music composed in that period," he said. "We learned so much about musical textures via Serialism. But the freedom from it is liberating. I think we might be coming to the point where it's possible to compose again. You don't have to be neo-something, neo-Romantic or whatever; you can just write music. People from very different angles are heading toward something that could become a mainstream musical language. The kind of things that John Adams writes today can sound surprisingly much like Magnus Lindberg."
For Mr. Salonen, the giants of this new mainstream are composers like Messiaen and Lutoslawski, who exploited or even initiated technical advances without becoming attached to any school of thought. Between the arrogant idealism of Serialism and the panicky nostalgia of neo-Romanticism is a middle path of complex but seductive sound, in which the myriad possibilities of 20th-century experimentation are absorbed into a clear musical picture.
Mr. Salonen is particularly devoted to Lutoslawski, who died in February and whose valedictory Fourth Symphony is on the Avery Fisher Hall program tomorrow. "He found his true and final language at the age of 70," Mr. Salonen said. "In his last works the balance between form and content is perfect. He was one of the few composers who was able to play with the listener's experience of form. There are sections where very little happens, in order to make the appearance of the next event more effective. It's the technique of a classical master."
Mr. Salonen's reverence for the music of his colleagues is, of course, rooted in his own urge to compose. He is the only conductor of a major American orchestra, and one of the very few conductors worldwide, who pursues an active composing career. Now that he is established in Los Angeles, he wants more time to write music.
"I was very pleased when it came out," he said of the Finlandia CD of his music. "But then I was holding it in my hand, and I thought, this is 10 years of my life on one bloody CD. I was very jumpy that afternoon; I called my agent immediately and said: 'Cancel this. Cancel that. I need more time to work.' Then I went and accepted a commission for a big piece for 1997.
"But I don't regret the time spent on conducting," he added. "It's wonderful to be able to work with this music, and I feel very privileged. Sometimes I have these funny moments of joy. I'm studying the score, and I suddenly realize how great the music is, and I'm overcome by very powerful feelings of euphoria."
In Los Angeles, the euphoria is no longer his alone.