Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen in London. (Matthew Lloyd, For The Times )
LONDON — It's late afternoon south of the Thames. Outside Henry Wood Hall, the first winter winds dance leaves and cigarette packages while dusk further smudges an already-gray sky. Inside the deconsecrated Georgian church, a man is being driven to murder.
His accomplices, the Philharmonia Orchestra and its principal conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, are nearly halfway through six hours of rehearsing Alban Berg's first opera, "Wozzeck." In performance, the title character's transformation from gentle soldier to wife-killer takes just 90 minutes.
The 104 musicians occupy one of the few spaces in London where orchestras can rehearse, their stripy sweaters, suede knee-high boots and rumpled blazers in place of tailcoats. Ten white bass travel cases huddle in the corner like giant tombstones.
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The other nine soloists, neighbors, fellow soldiers, doctor and wife, fiddle with their phones, popping up occasionally to help Wozzeck on his way to uxoricide.
All this rehearsal is in aid of the Philharmonia's November tour of the United States. Of the 11 dates, seven are in California. The concert performance of "Wozzeck" (Tuesday at Walt Disney Concert Hall) is one program. Other concerts will include "Symphonie Fantastique" and Beethoven's Seventh (Wednesday in Costa Mesa, Friday in Santa Barbara) and Mahler's Ninth (Wednesday in San Diego).
After Salonen's 17 years as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, bringing the Philharmonia to California is a little bit like introducing the second wife to the family for the first time. Gallantly declining to compare the two, Salonen does allow that the Philharmonia "is one of the best orchestras in the world. It's a very young orchestra, and its spirit is that of a youth orchestra. Even the older people have somehow kept the sense of adventure, which is rare."
The Philharmonia regularly receives good notices and more than one critic has floated the idea that it is the best orchestra in London at the moment.
According to Salonen, the Philharmonia's strength is its flexibility. "The sound is very delicate and transparent, but also it can be tremendously powerful. They have a very wide range of colors, this orchestra. There's a constant search for the right sound for any given piece of music. You can play old repertoire like Haydn in a sort of period style, no problem, and then move on to Xenakis."
Inside the hall, the conductor has called time, the players scurrying off for their dinner break. A couple days' worth of whiskers brings a bit of softness to his customary Euro-mod uniform of black jeans, T-shirt and shoes. Feigning horror at the prospect of being photographed unshaven, Salonen, 52, agrees on the condition that his mother in Finland doesn't see it.
In the U.K., backstage quarters are, to put it politely, less luxuriously appointed than most in the United States. Salonen's room at Henry Wood Hall, with its sagging brown couch and feeble Ikea lighting, has all the glamour of your high school best-friend's basement.
On the table, some dry ham, cucumber and wilted lettuce lie meekly between two pieces of cardboard doing their best to look like bread. Water and a banana also arrive and we get down to the business of why the orchestra is touring "Wozzeck," composition commissions, conducting operas and how to start a riot.
Orchestras often play big programs when they tour, but bringing "Wozzeck," with its monster orchestra, 10 soloists and full chorus, is kind of insane. Moving around that many people is expensive, and while Salonen is an established name, Berg is not.
"It's an idea that was actually born before the subprime mortgage crisis," Salonen says, laughing. "I thought it would be nice to do something that isn't the normal touring thing. 'Wozzeck' certainly isn't. The other reason is that it is one of the most important pieces for me in the entire repertoire and I've been conducting it since my 20s. In fact, it was the first opera I'd ever conducted."
Salonen pauses, smiling wryly at the memory (there's a reason novice opera conductors usually start with Mozart), "Only now can I fully appreciate the fearlessness of those days."
When the Philharmonia returns to Jolly Old, Salonen will be staying on in Los Angeles to complete another project he started in his 20s: recording the symphonies of Polish composer Witold Lutos¿awski with the L.A. Phil for Sony.
The orchestra recorded the Second in 1984, before Salonen was music director, and the Third and Fourth were one of his first projects when he took over in 1992. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the late composer's birth, the Polish government has funded a live recording of his first symphony at Walt Disney Hall to complete the cycle. Remarkably, Salonen isn't the only constant in this project. According to the Phil's press office, at least 10 musicians in the orchestra will have played on all three recordings.