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Salonen listens from a distance

The Philharmonic's former music director is giving Gustavo Dudamel

October 24, 2009|Diane Haithman

As he was the leader of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 17 years, there are some who probably expected former music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, 51, to be sitting front and center when his successor, 28-year-old Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, stepped up to the podium for his inaugural concerts earlier this month at the Hollywood Bowl and Walt Disney Concert Hall.

But that's not Salonen's style. During a recent telephone chat, Salonen, who stepped down from the post largely to pursue his passion for composing and now holds the title of the Philharmonic's first conductor laureate, talked about why he was conspicuously absent from the hoopla.

The Finnish-born conductor spoke from New York, where he was rehearsing for his much-anticipated debut conducting the Metropolitan Opera in November.

The occasion of our conversation was to talk for an upcoming story about composer John Adams, the Phil's new creative chair and curator of the West Coast, Left Coast festival of California music, happening Nov. 21-Dec. 8.

What led Salonen to talk about Dudamel was the question: Would you have wanted to curate the festival?

"Not this close to the end of my tenure," he said quickly. "At some point in the future I would be very happy to do something of this sort, but I really felt that there's a new guy in town, and he should get on with it and do his own thing. I really felt that it would be sort of a natural, right thing to do to give him some space. Which is not to say that I wouldn't be listening.

"I'll come back at some point when the dust has settled and start working with the Phil again in a different capacity, a different sort of thing -- but not quite yet."

Even though Salonen's focus now is composing, he says the mental process of curating a music festival is "not that far from composing, really, because the idea is that the bits and pieces would make sense, and of course composing is something like that. Putting a festival together is a highly creative process. It also kind of forces you to study music and listen to music and read music that you may not encounter in any other way. It's also education."

For Salonen, that would be particularly true of the West Coast, Left Coast festival, since his adopted home of California became such a huge influence on his composing, particularly in the case of his "L.A. Variations," which had its world premiere with the Phil.

"The best way to define California music is to say that it has no narrowly definable characteristics besides the beauty of it," he said. "I think it was absolutely crucial in my case that I came to a place where there was no preconceived idea of what 'new music' means. In Europe there was a kind of rigid sense of what new music is allowed to be, or what it should be."

Though he'll probably be listening, Salonen won't be attending the West Coast, Left Coast festival either -- even though Dudamel will be conducting "L.A. Variations" as part of the program. "I'm actually working somewhere else at the time," Salonen said. "But it really warms my heart that old 'L.A. Variations' is going to be performed, but conducted by the new man. It gives me a very nice feeling of continuity."

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