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MUSIC : Salonen, One Year Later : Esa-Pekka Salonen has the L.A. Philharmonic playing brilliantly and he dares explore uncharted avenues--but his penchant for brash experiments raises some doubts

August 29, 1993|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Martin Bernheimer is The Times' music and dance critic

He is vital, photogenic, smart, talented, reserved, affable, tough and provocative. Some observers--especially those who are paid to sell tickets to his concerts--say he's charismatic.

He likes to pose for posters and brochures in his jeans. He goes about his business without the benefit of an entourage. He doesn't seem to know what a personal representative is, much less what one does. He registers surprise, even a modicum of alarm, when he sees his name on a Sunset Strip billboard.

At 35, he has become a figurehead of new-wave culture in an old-wave environment.

He , in case you've been out of the country, is Esa-Pekka Salonen, the boyish superman from Finland who serves as music-director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Everyone--well, nearly everyone--loves him.

When he led his responsive ensemble through four controversial concerts at Hollywood Bowl this month, he completed the active portion of his first year on the job. The summer season continues, but it does so with a passing parade of lesser conductors taking temporary possession of the podium.

The guests are selected, of course, by Salonen, or at least engaged with his approval. For better or worse, the Philharmonic is his Philharmonic now.

All policies, official and unofficial, must reflect his priorities. He must take the ultimate credit or blame for decisions regarding soloists and repertory. He must define the mission of the orchestra, sociologic as well as artistic, and implement that mission.

Perhaps it is time to look back.

Salonen seemed to be the right man at the right time for Los Angeles when he was signed in 1989. His appointment was greeted with cheers in most quarters. The orchestra was in dire need of a little vigor. Call it spunk.

An unrealistic, stubbornly recalcitrant churl might have preferred a more mature, more seasoned music-director. This was Salonen's first full-time position in the major symphonic leagues. It was feared that Los Angeles might suffer while the maestro received his on-the-job training.

Gloomsayers predicted, moreover, that the novice would be unduly influenced by Ernest Fleischmann. Everyone knows that our notoriously autocratic, unabashedly egocentric, undeniably capable impresario-in-residence likes to chew up conductors before breakfast.

The alternatives to Salonen, however, weren't all that promising. The great independent music-directors of yore, the old-school virtuosos, the benign dictators who speak loudly and carry a little stick, all seemed to be unavailable. A few were occupied elsewhere. Most were dead.

In order to understand Salonen's role in the realm of our cultural aspirations, it may be useful to recall a little history. The Philharmonic has employed three other music-directors in the past three decades. Each left a different mark.

Zubin Mehta, who came back just this week with his Israeli orchestra, set the standard for flamboyant star-power. He didn't invariably please those listeners who valued introspection as much as thunder, but, from 1962 to 1978, he exerted a conveniently magnetic force in this land of plastic-lotus values.

Carlo Maria Giulini, whose regrettably brief tenure lasted from 1978 to 1984, provided a compelling counterforce. A gentle, pensive poet and, in his own romantic way, something of a purist, he resembled Mehta's retrograde inversion.

Following these heroic figures, Andre Previn (1985-1989) seemed all too human. Although he was a solid technician, a persuasive champion of regressive 20th-Century composers ignored by both his predecessors and a masterly exponent of neglected semi-masterpieces from England, he didn't look like a matinee idol. For all his sympathetic inclinations, he seemed to suffer from a rather limited attention span, and it was said that his energies did not always keep up with his ideas.

Most damaging, perhaps, was his relationship with Fleischmann. Previn couldn't coexist with the man, much less dominate him. After winning some small victories, he lost the big war.

Fleischmann made it clear even before Previn's departure that he wanted a more adventurous, more assertive, more marketable music-director. He apparently wanted a firebrand, someone bright, eager and glamorous. He wanted a positive symbol. He also wanted an easy bridge into the 21st Century, and an informed guide into Disney Hall, the new zillion-dollar home projected for the Philharmonic at the Music Center.

Obviously, he wanted Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Under the circumstances, the choice seemed reasonable. Salonen came with an accessible image, and he was willing--less than eager, perhaps, yet willing nonetheless--to cooperate with the sales department.

As a popular guest-conductor in previous seasons, he had managed to persuade even the most skeptical that he was more interested in music-making than in narcissism. In little time, he had gotten the Philharmonic to play for him with unaccustomed degrees of brilliance, suavity, fervor and clarity.

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