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COVER STORY : On the Run With the Next Man About Town : Esa-Pekka Salonen doesn't take over as music director of the L.A. Philharmonic until 1992, but his periodic visits are whirlwinds of professional and social activity geared toward preparing for a new musical era

November 25, 1990|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer. Times staff writer John Henken contributed to this article

Esa-Pekka Salonen had barely arrived at LAX when an immigration officer asked him just what he was planning to do in the United States of America.

He was here to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Salonen replied.

Glancing over at the small, casually dressed Finn who looks even younger than his 32 years, the official laughed: "You? Tell me the program."

Salonen must have been convincing, because four nights later, he's telling the story to friends over a post-concert dinner at Spago. Behind him is opening night, an evening that began and ended with calls of "bravo" and which set the stage for a demanding but rewarding visit here.

He may look undistinguished after a long international flight, but his stature alters significantly in front of an orchestra. After his closing performance, the intense, handsome young maestro takes so many curtain calls that he actually blushes, placing his hand over his heart.

The attention continues backstage, where middle-aged concertgoers wanting autographs have to get in line behind orchestra members waiting to thank him. "The first time he came was in 1984, and I remember we were absolutely bowled over," Philharmonic principal flutist Anne Diener Giles said a while earlier. "The fact he's here this week and at various times over the next couple years helps get us comfortable with him. It sort of eases the transition."

The Philharmonic's Music Director Designate is on a roll. Everybody's fussing over him, from critics to colleagues. But he doesn't take over officially until the fall of 1992, and like the bride whose wedding is two years away, Salonen has to maintain all that good will and momentum for quite a while.

Salonen is slightly more than a third of the way through his engagement period. He just finished his second round of concerts since his appointment was announced in August, 1989, and he won't be back on the Pavilion stage again until next April. He was marched around so much last fall to dinners, meetings, press briefings and such that he snuck back last spring to do business without performing.

Each time he's here, Salonen works on programming plans, meets new people and checks in with Frank Gehry, the architect on the orchestra's coming Walt Disney Concert Hall. During his visit earlier this month, Salonen did manage to work in some private time with his fiancee, but once she went back to London, the pace intensified. He was out visiting Gehry, dining with Philharmonic executives and attending receptions, press conferences and meetings. He led a recording session at Royce Hall and dropped in on orchestra auditions.

To get a sense of what life is like for Salonen at this stage of the game, The Times asked for and received unusual permission to trail the conductor through all that activity. And whether visiting with reporters, arts leaders or other people the Philharmonic management throws in his path, Salonen is remarkably consistent.

Asked about the constant attention and watching of his every move, Salonen calls it "an ambivalent situation, because if there weren't expectations and positive hopes, there would be no point in starting this. I'm full of hope and expectations. I'm also watching people very closely. It's a two-way thing. If I didn't believe in the potential of the orchestra and my own potential, I wouldn't take on something as big as this. It would be just madness."

Although Salonen has been to Los Angeles on and off since making his American debut here in 1984, he has simultaneously developed a grueling international schedule. He has long been principal conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, touring and recording with both orchestras. He is also principal guest conductor of London's Philharmonia Orchestra, and makes continuing guest appearances with other U.S. and foreign orchestras.

At his first rehearsal with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in late October, an orchestra he hasn't conducted for nearly a year and which greets his coming onstage with applause, Salonen simply walks to the podium and says, "Hello everybody, nice to see you again." Then, amenities over, he picks up his baton for Debussy's "La Mer."

His standard dress for rehearsals is a dark designer T-shirt, jeans and black loafers. He keeps his score open but he rarely looks at it except to turn pages. His jacket is draped over a chair he doesn't use, and his posture is perfect.

But even in rehearsal clothes, he is a conductor for the video age. Not unlike former Music Director Zubin Mehta or the late Leonard Bernstein, Salonen is physically animated. He crouches, lunges, raises his arms toreador-like, moves his body like a cat. "There's a feline quality to Esa-Pekka," says one orchestra member. "He's sensual, like a panther--there's a softness but with a rippling muscle underneath."

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