The University of Louisville has announced that the winner of the 2012 Grawemeyer Award for music is Esa-Pekka Salonen. He receives the prize in recognition of his Violin Concerto, which had its premiere in April 2009, during Salonen's final weeks as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (I was present for the occasion, and wrote about it here.) Salonen is back in L.A. this week, preparing to conduct the world premiere of Orango, an operatic fragment by Shostakovich. He'll then head up the coast to lead the San Francisco Symphony in performances of his award-winning concerto, with Leila Josefowicz as soloist; after that he goes to Chicago, to introduce a new violin concerto by James Matheson. Amid this flurry of American activity, the hyper-cosmopolitan Finn found time to answer a few miscellaneous questions.
Winning the Grawemeyer puts you in the company of many of your composing heroes and cherished colleagues: Lutosławski, Ligeti, Boulez, John Adams, Thomas Adès, and Kaija Saariaho, among others. What did you feel upon receiving the news?
Beside being just generally delighted and touched, I felt extremely happy to join that list. Many of the previous recipients were massive influences and supporters in my youth, and many others are among my most admired colleagues and friends today.
You have long had one foot in the world of conducting and one foot in the world of composing. Do you still wish to adjust the equation, or do you believe that you have found the right balance?
Believe me, as long as I live I will feel that the balance needs to be adjusted somehow. I have been aiming at a 50/50 balance, and am currently conducting somewhat more than that. I will take a longer total break from conducting in the 2013-14 season to adjust the balance. The main problem of my scheduling is that any time in the diary which is not strictly conducting is called composing time. This is an illusion as the so-called "life" happens within the other 50%: family time, recovery, reading, general charging of batteries, taking cat to the vet.
There is presently a worldwide rebellion against inequalities in income. How should classical music, popularly associated with elites and wealth, react in the current climate?
All we have to fight is the prejudice, a false image created by miscommunication and sometimes by total lack of communication. In this country for instance, the cheapest tickets to orchestra concerts are not dramatically more expensive than tickets to sports events or movies. Without any student or senior reductions, the cheapest regular tickets cost little over twenty dollars mostly, in Europe often a lot less than that. By far the most expensive concert ticket I ever bought was for a Madonna show, by the way.
The sad fact is that we are witnessing a fierce anti-intellectual period in Western culture, both here and in Europe. Populist right-wing movements are attacking the arts and enlightened critical thinking everywhere, and the epithet "elitist" is being used as the favorite blunt instrument by those politicians. So far I haven't seen the anti-Wall Street/London City protest movement forming any direct cultural positions, but I cannot see how classical music with its very modest commercial dimensions would be seen as an enemy by anybody who is willing and able to look beyond the uninformed use of the word "elitist."
You are back in Los Angeles this week, conducting your old orchestra. What do you miss about the city?
I miss the openness, both mental and physical. And my friends. When I arrived here last week I was stunned to realize how huge a part of me is still here.
Have you encountered any strong new composing voices? Older works that are speaking to you anew?
I'm constantly trying to reassess and relearn everything I know, even about works I have conducted hundreds of times before. In my conducting life, the new thing is opera, which I did not do much when I was with the LA Phil. I have developed an incurable Wagner disease, and getting more and more fascinated by Janáček. I just finished a massive Bartók project with the Philharmonia, more than thirty concerts in seven countries, including ten performances of Bluebeard's Castle. I really feel that my understanding of that amazing stuff has deepened to a completely new level. However, I'm going to take a little break from it now for a few seasons.
I'm constantly trying to find young composers whose work deserves and needs support. The latest discovery was Joseph Phibbs, a young, British, Cornell-trained composer, who is beginning to make waves. Steven Stucky called and told me to take a look at his stuff. Decided to commission an orchestra piece for the Philharmonia straight away.
What books are on your nightstand or in your carry-on bag?
W. G. Sebald, always. I read a lot of history books at the moment. Realized how thin my knowledge is of the late-Roman, early-medieval period. I might be the last one who hasn't yet read Franzen's Freedom. Downloaded it onto my iPad as well as the Steve Jobs bio.
Several years ago you admitted to listening to Shakira at the gym. Are there any guilty or guilt-free pleasures on your current playlist?
I love tacky Italian pop. Most likely because of the jukebox at Bar Rolli in Magenta, an industrial suburb of Milano where I lived when studying with Castiglioni. I always had my supper there, and got to know all the emerging local pop stars very well. In gyms I listen to Paola & Chiara, Gianna Nannini, and Laura Pausini. My children find this deeply shameful.