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COVER STORY

Still making waves

The Philharmonic's Esa-Pekka Salonen has major statements to make this summer, a time for arts (as our critics' previews on the next pages attest).

May 15, 2008|BY DAVID NG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FLIP-FLOPS AND ARMANI COATTAILS -- they don't make the most natural fashion combination.

But on Esa-Pekka Salonen, the dissonant attire somehow resolves itself into a harmonic whole. Deep down, the cerebral maestro is actually a devoted beach bum.

"It's a real treat coming to the beach," says the Los Angeles Philharmonic's music director since 1992. "Whatever is bothering you, all of those thoughts disappear when you come out here. I like the idea of starting from zero, and this is the perfect way to do it."

Having just trod ankle-deep into the chilly Pacific Ocean for our cover shoot, Salonen is eager to dry off and talk about his summer plans, which include his final Hollywood Bowl season as music director.

"Of course, I am feeling a little nostalgic. But I'm still doing business as usual," he says. "There's a lot going on, a lot of big programs to rehearse."

Salonen's upcoming appearances provide convenient bookends to the L.A. summer arts season. This month, he conducts the much-anticipated West Coast premiere of his Piano Concerto at Walt Disney Concert Hall, with pianist Yefim Bronfman as soloist.

"It's a very, very difficult piece to play," Salonen explains. "I've tweaked the score and made little changes here and there. It will be great to have it played by my hometown band."

In September, Salonen will conduct his final Bowl program, Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8. The gargantuan piece features a full orchestra, eight soloists and two choruses.

"It has a scale that cannot be dwarfed by anything," says the conductor. "I thought instead of doing some kind of gala type of thing, I'd rather do something I haven't done before in L.A. I've only conducted the piece twice before, and it's not something you want to conduct too many times in a lifetime."

In between those engagements, the maestro plans to celebrate his 50th birthday in June and spend time composing at his house in Finland. He'll also make trips back to L.A. and, time permitting, take in some of the city's many cultural offerings.

"I really enjoy it when art and music become an essential part of people's lives," he says. "The Bowl is something people can come to year after year, and pass it on to their children. I think there's something wonderful about that."

Salonen's memories of the Bowl aren't all rosy, though. He recalls conducting Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 when something went wrong with the timing for the fireworks.

"We came to the spot where they were supposed to go off and nothing happened," he recalls. "So I started slowing down the tempo, and still nothing happened. But the moment I took my bow -- boom! That's when all hell broke loose."

Other things Salonen says he won't miss about the Bowl: the skunks scurrying around the Hollywood Hills and the helicopters flying overhead.

He pauses and then smiles. "But mostly, really happy memories," he says.

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For more about Salonen's Southern California, see My Favorite Weekend. For more photos of summer arts and music happenings, go to latimes.com/summer.

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