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L.A. Phil's force of nature presses for a sea change

Esa-Pekka Salonen combines his passion for music with his concern for the environment at the Baltic Festival.

August 26, 2003|Michael White | Special to The Times

STOCKHOLM — Protest songs aside, the relationship between music and politics has seldom been close, and for every Verdi (who campaigned for the unification of Italy) or Paderewski (who became prime minister of Poland), there have been rather more composers and performers who refused to burden their art with worldly concerns. It's not my business, they would say -- citing Wagner's racist rants as an example of what happens when musicians step beyond the boundaries of their expertise. If he had only stuck to writing operas ...

Esa-Pekka Salonen, though, takes a different view, which is why, over the weekend, the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic was in the Swedish capital directing a music festival designed to draw attention to the threat of ecological breakdown in the Baltic Sea.

Supported by Swedish Radio (with which Salonen retains connections as former chief conductor of its Radio Symphony Orchestra), the festival came with impressive packaging. Politically, it opened with an international symposium co-hosted by the World Wildlife Fund and addressed by several Baltic heads of state, including the president of Finland and King Carl XVI Gustav of Sweden. Musically, it featured artists and repertoire from every country bordering the Baltic except Poland ("We'll get them next time," promised Salonen), including the Maryinsky Opera under Valery Gergiev, the Finnish Radio Symphony under Sakari Oramo, the North German RSO with Christoph Eschenbach, and the Lithuanian-born violinist Gidon Kremer.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 29, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Violinist's birthplace -- An article in Tuesday's Calendar incorrectly reported that violinist Gidon Kremer was born in Lithuania. He was born in Latvia.

Gergiev and Kremer were prime movers in establishing the festival. But the idea came from Salonen, who, although based in Los Angeles for seven months of the year, retains a summer residence in his home country of Finland and was shocked to learn two years ago that there were certain days when it was unsafe to swim in the sea -- for fear of toxic algae.

"The water turns into varieties of yellow, green and orange," he said Saturday, "which sounds pretty but isn't. It's disgusting. It smells bad. And when you see it, you realize things are out of control. The ecological balance in the Baltic is fragile, under attack from endless pollutants, and most experts agree that the moment has come: We either act now or it dies."

So he decided it was time for action. In truth, he had been thinking about setting up a music festival in Stockholm for some time -- because, strangely, there has never been one. Norway and Finland seem to hold a festival in every town with more than 10 people and a goat, but not Sweden.

"That explains the location. But it was really important to get every country in this region involved, because we're in this together," the conductor said. "And for the first time in history, there's the possibility of us actually being together. For centuries, there was war between us. Then for 80 years, the Communist regime turned the Baltic into a boundary zone rather than a community. Now this is gone, we can actually do something."

For all the changes, Russia remains the main problem, with a government that continues to hold out against environmental initiatives endorsed by every other Baltic state. In between performances of Shostakovich's opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" and Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony, Gergiev made it clear that he accepted his country's role as the chief villain.

"We bear a great responsibility," he said, "but I think Russians have finally started to understand they must cooperate, contribute and share with their neighbors. The message of this festival will be welcomed in my country too."

Having Gergiev on board was no less important to the festival than the attendance of the Nordic heads of state. His access to the highest powers in the Kremlin is well-known, and it adds to Salonen's conviction that the days are over when musicians could comfortably stand to one side when issues of world polity were under debate, protesting that it was not their business.

"There's a tendency," said Salonen, "to regard things like ecology, economics and culture as separate, whereas they're actually interconnected at the deepest level. Culture depends on economy; economy depends on environment. And the ultimate objective of those of us who work in these interconnected fields is the same: to make a society where we can a live a fulfilled and satisfying life at every level. This is absolutely the musician's business."

It also, he suggested, provides an opportunity for classical musicians to reclaim some lost power.

"Think of Verdi, think of Sibelius, and you recall a time when musicians were at the center of political life: Their voice was heard. Now we've been marginalized, which is frustrating. It's only the rock performers who seem to have clout. And though they don't often use it for any purpose worth mentioning, you see -- when someone like Bob Geldof comes along -- how these people can wield massive power, how they can make things happen for the better, if they choose."

One curious thing about the Baltic Festival was that it failed to reinforce its message in its repertoire, which followed no particular theme: The force of nature or the sea would have been obvious choices. But for Salonen, they were perhaps too obvious, at least for this first season. In future years (and after the personal endorsement of the Swedish prime minister in the opening symposium, everyone assumes there will be future years), things might be different.

As for the environmental future, Salonen was careful to say that he doesn't naively expect a music festival to change the fate of a whole region of the world. "But I believe we have to fight on all fronts, at all levels. And everybody here thinks this is worthwhile. Their hearts are in it. That's a good start."

Formerly chief music critic of the Independent in London, Michael White now writes for the London Telegraph and broadcasts for the BBC.

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