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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

"La Mer" is one of the first pieces he ever conducted professionally, and he knows it well. But, he says later, he decided to start over this time, even throwing away his old score and buying a new one.

He has the orchestra play straight through the familiar warhorse before stopping the musicians with comments. But that done, he takes "La Mer" apart almost as if it were a new piece, thanking the orchestra when it works, stopping, starting and stopping again when it is too loud, too slow or simply sloppy.

"We've played 'La Mer' dozens of times," says violist Irving Manning, a man who was playing in the Los Angeles Philharmonic before Salonen was born. "It's a part of our repertoire. But as so often happens, certain passages are taken for granted. The big secret is that he allowed us to play. What each of us possesses was able to get out--it was like releasing a bird from a cage."

Salonen's technique is quite different on Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's "Du Cristal," which is having its U.S. premiere here. On that piece, the orchestra truly is dealing with a new piece, and Salonen works first with only the string sections, then the rest of the orchestra.

Rather, he and Saariaho take the orchestra through the piece. Through much of the rehearsal, the 38-year-old composer has her score plopped on the edge of the stage and is reading along with Salonen and his musicians. Often he turns to ask her a question in Finnish, and both composer and conductor make suggestions to the musicians in English.

At one point, Salonen even asks associate conductor David Allan Miller to take over, then jumps off the stage to hear how it sounds in the auditorium. The string section is very strong, Saariaho explains later, and the conductor was worried that the winds would not be heard.

"We've known each other 15 years and he knows my music well," Saariaho says. "I trust him as an interpreter--he knows what I'm looking for. And because he is a composer himself, he can imagine what the work is about before it is played."

Salonen barely has time to recover from his Thursday evening triumph before he is thrust into a press conference Friday to announce the appointment of Peter Sellars as Philharmonic "creative consultant."

A small group of radio and print reporters are nibbling on snacks in the Pavilion's Founders Room when Salonen and Sellars arrive separately. The two men--who are about the same size as well as age--embrace in greeting, then head off to the corner to chat for a minute before taking on the media.

Philharmonic executive vice president and managing director Ernest Fleischmann starts the press conference. Among the first things he says is that "orchestras are in trouble partly because they've become dull, boring and repetitive. We're doing something about it."

While the Old World Fleischmann, eccentric-looking Sellars and GQ-worthy Salonen appear cut from very different cloth, their notions of revitalizing an orchestra's role in society do seem very compatible. All three of them are concerned about attracting new and younger concertgoers, programming new music, and reaching out more to the city's many ethnic communities and musicians.

There's also been other news at the Philharmonic since Salonen's appointment. The orchestra was barely back from opening New York's Carnegie Hall centennial this September when Fleischmann announced a new Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, complete with recording contract. Coming up are a European tour next spring with Kurt Sanderling and a residency at the Salzburg Festival in 1992 with Salonen.

Fleischmann says later that Salonen's "coming on board provided new impetus and enthusiastic support to our planning." The new Bowl orchestra will give some breathing room to Salonen's Philharmonic, for example, while the Sellars appointment came about in part when the impresario saw how well the two men "related to one another at various meetings over the past year. . . . While I may have originated the ideas, Esa-Pekka has contributed to them a great deal and enthusiastically blessed them."

Back to the conference, where at one point a writer points out that the combined ages of the "thirty something" Sellars and Salonen don't add up to Fleischmann's age--66 in December. And while the formidable Fleischmann laughs aloud at references to his age, he is in fact almost paternal in his willingness to yield Salonen center stage, at least at this point. And he is visibly emotional about audience and backstage reaction to the young conductor.

Sellars and Salonen, meanwhile, say they will talk on and off in future months. Salonen says he's looking forward to their "continuous master-minding," and both say until 1992 they expect much of that to take place in London. Their responsibility, summarizes Sellars, is to bring to classical music a generation "that looks before it listens."

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