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The maestro rocks

Conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen finds much to praise in contemporary pop music's energy. Are we talking crossover?

January 28, 2003|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

Late at night, after he's conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen tries to clear the Beethoven or Bartok out of his head. He gets assistance from the two young guys who drive him to concerts and back. "After concerts -- that is for me the best moment," says Salonen. "I'm sort of empty. I have a couple of drinks and then I listen to Foo Fighters."

Americans tend to warm to classical music as they near middle age, leaving their rock records behind for chamber quartets and orchestral music. Salonen, the impish Finn who's served as the Philharmonic's music director since 1992, went the opposite direction: He grew up steeped in classical music -- his musical upbringing was so Germanic that even the harmonies of French composers like Berlioz sound alien to his ear -- but has been drawn deeper into rock 'n' roll as his teenage years recede into the past.

In the last few years, he's gone to a Sigur Ros concert, become fascinated with rock production and tried in vain to understand DJ-driven music. He's had dinner with members of Radiohead and begun imagining how he and they might collaborate.

Salonen, 44, is hardly the only classical musician to be interested in popular music: Leonard Bernstein drew from jazz and Latin rhythms for "West Side Story," Schoenberg admired Gershwin, and the classical avant-garde has made occasional use of guitars, rock noise and techno beats. Rock music overlapped, mostly fruitlessly, with classical in the early '70s, with now-quaint bands like Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer producing "art rock" songs with pompous orchestral backing. But Salonen's story shows just how rich, if unlikely, high art's connection with pop culture can be: The conductor is remarkably free of the "contempt and condescension" New Yorker critic Alex Ross sees in many classical folk over 30.

Salonen, who got together to discuss his interest over a Bombay Sapphire martini, admits he was not always so open. "I was not interested in rock," he says, looking back at his childhood in Finland, where the romantic-nationalist composer Sibelius is a major hero and music serves as common culture. "I didn't have a prejudice," he says. "It just bored me, because of the predictability of it. What would happen in the next bar would be more or less what happened in the bar before." Salonen was aware of the pop music around him -- the Beatles and ABBA were unavoidable in '70s Scandinavia, and he developed a grudging respect for their ability to make a song work in an unforgiving three-minute form.

These days, he's most interested in bands from the more ambitious, and Northern side of the rock spectrum, like the chanteuse Bjork and Sigur Ros, a dreamy, metaphysically inclined Icelandic band he enjoys despite finding them "a little slow for my taste."

"He's been picking up momentum in the last year," says Matt Johnson, 32, one of Salonen's two drivers and the guitarist in a Springsteen-meets-Mudhoney band called Telegenic. Discussing and listening to rock music has become a regular feature of the ride home. "The thing he likes most about rock is the energy and power of it, after standing in front of a symphony for two hours. He says, 'This music is so primitive!' When he hears a band trying to be melodic, to be clever as musicians, he doesn't take it seriously." So Tool works, Weezer doesn't.

Salonen even admits to an affection for the odd song by Phil Collins, someone whose credibility among the rock intelligentsia is pretty slim. "If you're a fanatical rock person, there's a stigma," Salonen says. "But I don't have any stigma, because I'm a classical nerd anyway."

And he's still got a place in his heart for the band behind "Dancing Queen." With apologies to the Hives, could it be that Scandinavians have so few rock bands that they have to like ABBA as a patriotic duty?

"It's not simple to write a good song," the conductor says, mentioning some of his favorite lieder by Strauss, Schubert and Schumann. A great song, he says, whether "Wiegen Lied" or "Penny Lane," has a firm identity. Beyond that he can't say.

"And that's why 999 of 1,000 songs come and go while one song sticks around. It would be wonderful to know what makes them last; I've been thinking about this a lot lately. If you think about folk music, these melodies go back 800 years, 1,000 years. Like 'Greensleeves' or something. What exactly is the DNA that keeps this alive? As opposed to all the thousands of songs that we've forgotten?"

His early days were less catholic. Salonen's gang of teenage friends -- he calls them "the rigid intellectuals" -- were the highbrow Helsinki versions of London mods or New York punks.

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