Finnish conductor brings dash of cool to classical music

Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen in the New York apartment owned by his friend, the architect Frank Gehry.
Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen in the New York apartment owned by his friend, the architect Frank Gehry.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK • He has held musical soirees at National Sawdust in Brooklyn. He led the New York Philharmonic in Messiaen's boffo Turangalila-Symphonie in March at David Geffen Hall, where, a week later, Alan Gilbert conducted the New York premiere of his Dada piece, Karawane. Now he is next door, conducting Strauss' Elektra at the Metropolitan Opera.

No, the stars did not align to make Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Finnish conductor and composer who brings a dash of cool to classical music, the next music director of the New York Philharmonic (though he had topped the wish lists of many prominent critics).

But if he is the One Who Got Away - he publicly expressed ambivalence about the job and the orchestra opted for the Dutch maestro Jaap van Zweden - this year, Salonen feels a bit like the de facto music director of New York City through his high-profile Philharmonic and Met gigs.

His name has a way of popping up in the unlikeliest places, including a recent press junket promoting the movie Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. When a Finnish interviewer asked actress Holly Hunter about what it was like to appear in such a blockbuster, she steered the conversation in an unexpected direction.

"Esa-Pekka Salonen," she said, apologising for her digression. "I was longing for him to come to the New York Philharmonic."

During a recent interview, he appeared more than happy with the way things have worked out. He likened his extended New York sojourn this year to the relationship he had formed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic since stepping down as its music director in 2009, after 17 years, to devote more time to composing, other projects and his family.

"Now when I go back, I guess it could be as a grandparent," said Salonen, 57. "You just see the kids, have a good time - and then somebody else is in charge."

New Yorkers will have the chance to be spoilt by a visiting grand- parent next season too. Last Monday, the Metropolitan Opera announced that he would conduct all of the Met Orchestra's concerts at Carnegie Hall next spring, replacing James Levine, who is stepping down as the company's music director at the end of this season because of health problems.

In one of the biggest musical events of autumn, Salonen will conduct the New York Philharmonic in October at the Park Avenue Armory in works by Kaija Saariaho, whom he has known since he was a student and they were members of Ears Open, a Finnish new-music collective.

The Saariaho event is an example of the kind that the Philharmonic has increasingly embraced under the tenure of Gilbert, who will step down as music director next year, after eight years. Salonen - who has long proselytised for new approaches to programming and new ways of appealing to younger, artistically inclined people who do not often listen to classical music - spoke about the need for the music world to adapt.

"We should loosen up a bit and accept the fact that there are so many experiences available that loftiness doesn't get us anywhere," he said. "Self-improvement is not a reason to buy a ticket, which is not cheap. It has to operate on a different level. It has to be: Okay, here is an experience you won't forget."

He occasionally escapes the Lincoln Center area to stay downtown in the apartment of his friend, the architect Frank Gehry, with whom he collaborated during the building of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. At the apartment, he said, he has managed to "push forward" a cello concerto he is composing for Yo-Yo Ma.

Conductors who compose have sometimes been plagued with self-doubt: Was their composing tolerated because of their conducting work or perhaps vice versa?

"I have encountered that sort of suspicion - that if you do two things, one must be fake, surely, because nobody can do two things well," Salonen said. "It's a strange statement to make because you go 100 years back and every musician was also a composer."

He said classical music institutions should embrace the changes that are coming.

"The thing that worries me is so-called relevance," he said. "Because every day that goes by, the distance between us and, say, Beethoven, gets one day longer. If you think of the music of the Renaissance composers, the distance is such that we can safely say that they have lost their relevance.

"Classical music, or Western art music, or whatever, should be seen as some kind of an organism. For Beethoven to keep its relevance, we need new growth. So that if things keep growing organically, there will be new rings on the trunk of the tree and new growth in the spring.

"Some things die away. And some things flourish. And nothing is taken for granted. But if we don't make sure that it grows, then we're done. Sooner or later, we're done."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2016, with the headline 'Finnish conductor brings dash of cool to classical music'. Print Edition | Subscribe