You may know Esa-Pekka Salonen as a conductor — a reputation that went viral during what he calls his “very happy” 17 years as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But this restless, curious Finn didn’t set out to lead orchestras: his first love was composition, and one reason he left his California post was to make more time for writing. His return to the New York Philharmonic this month, the first since he led a threeweek festival in 2011, displays both sides of his talent when he conducts his own concerto and hosts an evening of his chamber compositions. More of Salonen’s chamber music will be on tap again next March when Yefim Bronfman and Philharmonic musicians offer the New York Premiere of his Sisar at 92nd Street Y. We caught up with Salonen by phone last summer from London, where he serves as principal conductor of London’s Philharmonia.
Madeline Rogers: Our interview is taking place much earlier than expected. Did you really finish rehearsing so early?
Esa-Pekka Salonen: I’m a very popular conductor today: the orchestra went home one hour and a half early on a beautiful summer evening. I’m basking in the glory!
MR: Tell us about returning to New York.
E-PS: I have known many of the New York Philharmonic musicians for a long time — my debut was in the 1980s. I’m a big fan. Sometimes in top orchestras the pursuit of top quality produces tension and aggression, but the New York Philharmonic doesn’t have that. They’re open, flexible, and good-natured.
MR: You’ve often performed Ravel here — as you will this time around [October 30– November 5], along with Sibelius. Of course, the centerpiece of the program is your own Violin Concerto.
E-PS: As a composer, I’m kind of a hybrid, with Scandinavian music — especially Sibelius — as the starting point. But I have also been drawn to French music. The Violin Concerto could be a child or grandchild of Ravel and Sibelius with an American accent.
MR: Ah, that American accent. As I listened to the final, slow movement, Adieu, I was reminded of a lush Hollywood score.
E-PS: I wrote Adieu during my last season in Los Angeles — I was kind of saying farewell to my life up to that point, but there also are elements that signify a beginning of something new. It’s looking forward and back. The reason I decided to reimagine my life was I had basically done everything I wanted; everything was going very well. I always thought, that’s the moment to step down — when there’s still wind in the sails.
MR: That sounds like a metaphor for composing: knowing when to end things, and making smooth transitions.
E-PS: One of the most central and challenging things about composing is a sense of proportion and timing. The greatest composers have that. If you think of Beethoven, for example, his sense of timing is unerring.
MR: Your concerto is receiving its New York Concert Premiere in these performances with Leila Josefowicz, for whom you wrote the piece.
E-PS: I worked with Leila a few times in other repertoire — contemporary concertos — and I was very impressed that she played those pieces with the same intensity and commitment that other people reserve for Brahms, Mendelssohn, and so on. So I thought, I want to write for this musician. Of course, I was traveling a lot and so was she. I would often send something over email and she would play it back for me over Skype. It was a very close collaboration, mentally and psychically, but geographically, not so much.
MR: You have said elsewhere that this piece reflects Leila’s personality. How so?
E-PS: Contemporary composers find it difficult to just be. Leila was constantly steering me in that direction. During the composition process she told me, “Don’t put too much into the orchestra; I want to be heard. There must be moments when I’m allowed to do something with one note or a couple of notes. Don’t make it too busy.”
MR: New York audiences will also get to hear your chamber music on November 4.
E-PS: I find writing for small forces refreshing. It’s like sorbet in the middle of a heavy meal: something that cleans your palate. Every note matters; you cannot hide behind flashy orchestration. You have to think about the degree of invention and the quality of your ideas.
MR: I notice that the movements of your concerto have names, like Adieu, and your chamber works also have descriptive titles. One of my favorites is Homunculus, which refers to age-old beliefs about creating a perfect little man.
E-PS: I name my pieces to provide some kind of gateway for the audience — for the musicians also. The reason I called this string quartet Homunculus is that I was commissioned to write a 15-minute piece, but I wanted it to have all the elements of a full-scale quartet: it would be like a perfect little man.
MR: In addition to the March 30 performance at 92nd Street Y, your music will be performed on November 4 at SubCulture, a club downtown. You are well known for taking classical or concert music out of the concert hall.
E-PS: It’s nothing new. If you think of the way chamber music was a couple of hundred years ago, it was exactly that — a social event. You heard music, and maybe ate and drank. Chamber music in a concert hall — while enjoyable — is intimidating for many people. If you go to a club, you knock off a beer and listen to some new music … the less-formal setting leaves people more open to the message.
Madeline Rogers is the former Director of Publications of the New York Philharmonic.