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Esa-Pekka Salonen makes a brief return to L.A. Philharmonic

The orchestra's conductor laureate visits to lead programs including the U.S. premiere of Magnus Lindberg's 'Graffiti,' with Béla Bartók's 'Bluebeard's Castle.'

November 20, 2010|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times

Go to youtube.com, type in "salonen" and "bluebeard," and you'll get a pretty fair idea of where the L.A. Philharmonic's conductor laureate's heart and mind are these days.

The resulting video shows Esa-Pekka Salonen last Wednesday rehearsing the Phil for Saturday's concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The program, a repeat of Friday's bill, opens with the U.S. premiere of "Graffiti" by Salonen's fellow Finn, the composer Magnus Lindberg, followed by Béla Bartók's "Bluebeard's Castle," based on the enigmatic tale of a nobleman whose new wife, Judith, fatefully investigates what happened to her husband's former spouses.

It's Salonen's first appearance with the Phil since he passed the music director's baton to Gustavo Dudamel a year and a half ago, and in prepping the orchestra Salonen had plenty to say about "Bluebeard's" allegorical meanings. (So did psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, but that's another story.)

"Whatever new happens in our lives opens lots of doors to memories," Salonen told the players, "and then ultimately we are what we are, we can't change, and especially we cannot go back to what was once."

At 52, Salonen appears to be heeding his own counsel. Professionally and personally, he's looking forward, not repeating the past, pressing ahead with a slew of new projects.

Even so, there was an unmistakable feeling of homecoming, a touch of nostalgia, at one Phil rehearsal last week, underscored by Salonen's easy rapport with the orchestra he led for 17 years, the intermittent wisecracks and laughter, the sense of a joint mission ardently enacted.

"I miss the people at the philharmonic," Salonen said recently over coffee near the Brentwood home that he still keeps although he and his family now are London-based. "And I miss the hall, of course. But I'm also happy that I left when I did, because there were no bad feelings. And I left something for Gustavo which was in a pretty damn good shape. I took it where I could, and then, you know, it's the next guy. And a damn good next guy for that, also."

The previous guy, for his part, is keeping busy with artistic commitments stretching from California to Europe. Back in town for several weeks this fall, Salonen has been hunkered down in Brentwood finishing work on a new orchestral piece. Next season with the New York Philharmonic, he'll lead a three-week festival, "Hungarian Echoes," inspired by three composers with Central European pedigrees, Haydn, Bartók and Ligeti. He'll also be continuing his ongoing exploration of Bartók's life, music and artistic influences with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, where his contract as principal conductor recently was extended through 2014.

During his L.A. sojourn this month, Salonen will be reteaming with several longtime associates. For "Bluebeard," the role of Judith is being performed by mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, a friend of Salonen's since they worked together in Stockholm in the early 1980s, and the part of Bluebeard will be sung by bass-baritone Willard White, another frequent collaborator. Next Friday and Saturday's Disney Hall program, also conducted by Salonen, will bring another favorite colleague, bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, to Los Angeles to perform selected scenes from Wagner's works.

"I really happen to enjoy working with my friends," Salonen said. "There's sort of trust and understanding. A lot of the communication is not necessary because it's there."

Martin Chalifour, the Phil's principal concertmaster, said it has been "definitely a nice reunion" between the orchestra and its former leader. "What has changed a little bit already is the way the orchestra plays," Chalifour said, citing the difference between Salonen's baton-centric conducting style and Dudamel's greater reliance on bodily gestures and facial expressions.

At the same time he's reconnecting with old acquaintances, Salonen lately has been devoting more time to identifying and supporting next-generation composing talent. Talented young musicians and singers generally can be assured of being discovered, he said, but aspiring composers often face a more uncertain and precarious path to success.

"The business is tougher now than what it used to be 20 years ago, and there are less commissions around orchestras, opera houses tend to play it safe more than before, go with the established names," he said. "And there's just less money around to keep young composers going."

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