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Let the music begin

Cover story

Esa-Pekka Salonen, the hall's maestro, talks with Times staff writer Craig Fisher about listening live.

October 23, 2003|Craig Fisher

My greatest experience as a child going to concerts had to do with the volume -- not only how loud it was, but the volume of physical energy, having a hundred people doing one thing, like one person. That's something you cannot avoid being moved by. I was terribly impressed by this discipline -- discipline that wasn't rigid, in the sense that it would prevent the music from being expressive or flexible, but was the unity of thought.

When you go to a symphony concert, you experience this. You realize that the amount of energy being created by a body of a hundred musicians is quite amazing. This is something that recordings cannot convey. A recording can convey some of the sonic aspects, but it doesn't convey the human energy and the physical aspect of a concert, when you don't only hear the sound but you see how it's being produced and, all of a sudden, some of these sounds start making sense in a different way. You see how the sound of a violin is being produced by this stick of wood with horse's-tail hair. They scrape this old wooden box with the horse's-tail hair, and out comes this heavenly sound. That's quite a miracle: how dead material becomes something sublime.

How many times have we read about wine tasting, where the tasters have not been able to see the color of the wine? They call sherry white wine, and they cannot distinguish between white wine and red wine when one aspect of sensory perception has been eliminated. It's the same thing with music. While it's mostly a sonic pleasure, we need the other senses as well. How much fun would it be to go to a restaurant where you're not allowed to see what you're eating? I don't think you would enjoy it anywhere near as much. And it's exactly the same thing with concerts versus car radio.

You know, it is a beautiful sight to see a whole violin section play together. I think, personally, that people are very beautiful when they are absolutely concentrated, to such a degree that they actually forget themselves. A person who is completely involved in something beyond his or her personal identity is much more beautiful than the most beautiful film star being completely self-absorbed.

When I conduct a great orchestra, in a great piece of music, and things really click, it's an absolutely exhilarating feeling. Surfing -- that's how I feel quite often. Not like being a surfer boy, but definitely riding a wave. That's the best part of this job, when the orchestra is creating this powerful sonic wave and I have the feeling of just riding on top of it -- not actually putting very much energy into the situation but sort of riding on energy created by the people and the music. It's slightly scary. You have tremendous, wild energy and then it's being controlled. And this tension sometimes produces fantastic results.

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