We are about to lose the conducting of Esa-Pekka Salonen for a year. But before the Los Angeles Philharmonic music director drops his baton for a long-planned sabbatical, he makes one last trip to the podium to remind us why he wanted the time off in the first place--to compose. Tonight he leads the orchestra in an all-Salonen program at Royce Hall.
"This is really a practical thing," Salonen says of the concert, centerpiece of the Philharmonic's Green Umbrella contemporary music series this season. "Sony is going to make a CD of my music for orchestra. We would have to rehearse it anyway, so it makes sense to give a concert also. That's the long and short of it.
"Another part of it, however, is that I have plans to enhance the Green Umbrella series to include the large orchestra sometimes. It would be good for people's perception to let them know that new music is not just a couple of guys sawing away."
The program gathers "Gambit," the song cycle "Five Images After Sappho," 'Giro" and "LA Variations."
"These four are my latest orchestral pieces. The odd man out is 'Giro,' which I wrote almost 20 years ago, but rewrote in 1997. It was very interesting to look again into something that I can partly identify with and partly not--20 years is half my life."
"Giro" was originally composed in what he calls "strictly post-serial" style--"serial" refers to the use of relationships, or series, of rhythms or pitches or other musical elements as an organizing tool for a composition, a strategy that has roots in the 20th century's seminal 12-tone experiments.
Now, "Giro" has been recast harmonically with the aid of a computer program that analyzes chords to find an overtone series that includes all the notes. Overtones are the harmonics or partial tones created above the fundamental pitch of almost every natural sound, from which the scales and hierarchical organization of Western tonal music can be derived.
Via the computer, Salonen discovered that the very dissonant chords he had originally used in "Giro" were essentially interpretations of three major keys.
"It seems very clear that whatever has happened in this century musically--we still have not gone very far from tonal centers," Salonen says. "Whether a reaction against it or an attempt to develop it further, whatever we do is a reflection on the great tradition of tonal music, like satellites circling around the central sun of the overtone series.
"We can change everything around us, but we cannot change the way we hear. Your own skull produces an overtone series that your ears hear all the time. I'm not saying we should [be] writing lullabies in C major, but I don't think atonality is viable. Even music that thinks of itself as atonal is not truly atonal because of the way we hear.
"In any case, the whole atonal versus tonal dialectic is dated and not interesting. What should be important is the expression itself, not which camp it is in. We're in an era of synthesis, and that's the fun of it, that's the whole point. Performance is not about scholarly truth, or right and wrong, or proving something, it is about expressing something."
As you might be able to tell, Salonen's music is anything but simplistic. It is much admired for its color, verve and originality, respect for the overtone series notwithstanding. Never having conducted an entire evening of his own work, he's not sure just how this set of pieces will work in concert.
"I have no idea, absolutely none at all," he says emphatically. "It is a demanding situation for any composer. For an audience, if it hears one new 15-minute piece, it takes 13 minutes to begin to get it, so you're left with two minutes of understanding. On a program devoted to one composer, you have time to get used to the grammar and to understand the content. At least, this is what I hope."
Salonen has been composing most of his musical life. With fame as a conductor has come closer scrutiny of his own music, and now many of his earliest teenage efforts have been recorded, in multiple performances. And as his compositions have gained their own critical mass--this program represents about half of his orchestral output--commissions have come rolling in, hence the sabbatical.
"The whole point for me is just to see what it would be like to be a full-time composer. I have so many commissions now, theoretically I could just compose, so I am going to be pretending to be one for a year."
At the top of the composer's to-do list is an opera for the Aix-en-Provence Festival. He is developing his own text, loosely based on Danish writer Peter Hoeg's novel "The Woman and the Ape."
"Every good opera has a sort of impossible love story," Salonen says, "with a mythic or taboo element. There are not many taboos now. After 'Lolita,' an interspecies relationship seems like the last taboo. I have had to postpone the premiere, however, because the libretto is lagging behind. It now will be 2003 or '04."