PARIS — Dressed in black jeans, black sweatshirt and boating shoes, Esa-Pekka Salonen walks comfortably into the room. He has the confident air of someone who works here, who belongs here, who maybe lives here.
The here is a beautiful, Old World upstairs foyer at the Theatre du Chatelet. On the walls are posters from the Ballets Russes. It was in this theater that Stravinsky's "Petrushka" had its premiere. It is in this theater that Salonen has been in residence with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the month, participating in a Stravinsky festival, before starting his fifth season as music director this week back home at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Salonen has come from a rehearsal to be photographed and to talk about Los Angeles and his role with the Philharmonic. He hasn't shaved.
Salonen, or course, does belong here in Paris, and he has been proving it every day of the residency. The schedule has been punishing: performing several nights of Peter Sellars' new production of Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress," with concerts by the orchestra and the New Music Group in between. The reviews have been, for orchestra and conductor, quotable, even a little preposterous. Yes, the Philharmonic has been playing sensationally well. No, Los Angeles' orchestra is not quite the equal of Holland's Concertgebouw, or of the Vienna or Berlin philharmonics, as a critic from Rome claimed.
Born in Finland in 1958 and a composer as well as a conductor, Salonen says that he fancies himself a fairly typical European intellectual. And Paris is a city in which he has spent time on what he calls "the Boulez trolley," working at the high-tech composition laboratory IRCAM, which Pierre Boulez founded.
But Salonen also now belongs in Los Angeles. Since becoming music director of the Philharmonic in 1992, he is based in California nine months of the year. He lives in Santa Monica with his wife, Jane Price, and their two young daughters, Ella Aneira and Anja Sofia. He has become one of Southern California's best-known faces, thanks to the Philharmonic's unrelenting advertising campaign, which keeps Salonen on billboards and street-lamp banners around town. And he looks the part of a Los Angeles conductor--young, blond and fit.
After four years, Los Angeles has changed Salonen, and he it. His influence on the orchestra can be found in its strong morale, its technical confidence and its sense of adventure. Audiences are younger and livelier than they have been since the early days of Zubin Mehta in the '60s. As for Los Angeles' effect on Salonen, it seems to be loosening him up.
"For a Finn, Los Angeles is just like a candy store," Salonen explains, casually straddling the back of his chair. "You know, I grew up in the most completely homogenous culture in Europe. Ninety-eight percent of the population of Finland is Lutheran. The population is almost completely Finnish. There is a tiny minority of Gypsies, a tiny Jewish population and even a more minute Islamic crowd. If you grow up in a place like that and then you come to Los Angeles, it can be really stimulating.
"And yet I don't feel isolated from my European origins at all, because there is a lot of old European stuff left in Los Angeles. Every day when I go to the Music Center, I drive by one of the residences of Bertolt Brecht on 26th Street.
"It obviously takes awhile to find a variety of things in Los Angeles. What you see first is really repulsive. That sort of endless barracks and the ugliness of shallow '50s, '60s and '70s architecture and culture. But you get used to it, and you don't see it after awhile.
"And once you learn what's underneath, the multilayered culture, the very interesting mixture of pioneer spirit and old European stuff and Mexican influence and all that, then it gets really fascinating."
And then there is the climate. Finland is a cold country, and the warm weather of Los Angeles seems to have warmed some of his Northern coolness.
"It's very interesting to see how that sort of constant heat of Los Angeles kind of makes things melt," Salonen observes.
The evidence of his own temperature change, Salonen says, is in his music. Although hardly a prolific composer these days, given that he has two children, one orchestra and a festival (the Helsinki) to look after, as well as a busy schedule of recording and guest conducting, he does still keep at it, and he is busy at work on a new orchestral piece that he will premiere with the Philharmonic in January.
"I think that the most telling example of [Los Angeles' influence] would actually be that I first had a sort of working title of 'Anatomia,' because it was based on some physical models. But when I got to know more about what kind of piece it would be, I changed the title. Now it's working title is 'LA Variations.' "