Conductor / Composer Esa - Pekka
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
This conversation is from the very beginning of 1988, a year before
Salonen was offered the Guest-Conductorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
He had already conducted there, but the twenty-year impact of this
collaboration was still on the horizon.
A multi-faceted musician, his focus is mainly on two overlapping tasks
— conducting and composition. Each
feeds the other, and together they propel his ongoing legacy.
After reading this interview, one comes away feeling that this man
is not only a superb musician, but also a deep thinker who can express
those ideas in a manner that communicates with everyone and anyone.
In 1988, Salonen was making his debut with the Chicago Symphony doing
the Nielsen Fourth Symphony. He would return several times to
conduct the Orchestra, and would also bring an all-Scandinavian program with
his Swedish Radio Orchestra just two months after that CSO debut.
Here is what was said that afternoon . . . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: Being Scandinavian, do you feel a
special passion to bring the music from Scandinavia all over the world?
Esa-Pekka Salonen: It’s not the geographical aspect
which is the vital one. For me it’s basically that I want to conduct
music that I like, and which I feel comfortable with. Nielsen and
Sibelius just happen to be those sort of composers.
BD: With this vast repertoire from three centuries
of symphonic music, how do you decide which pieces you will conduct and
which pieces you will set aside?
E-PS: Often it’s a lot of guessing because you
don’t really know whether this piece is good for you or not until you have
conducted it at least once. Sometimes there are pieces which need
fifteen performances so that you really are comfortable with the music.
So when I see score which excites me, then I try to program it somewhere,
and after the first performance I know a lot more about my relationship
to that piece.
BD: There must be some things you look for in the score
to give you a clue that this will excite you or that will not excite you.
E-PS: Yes, but there’s no rule really what sort
of things do excite me because a lot of the most exciting things in music
are not really possible to explain in verbal means. So it’s difficult
to describe what is the element that excites you.
BD: Do you find that most of the pieces you are
doing — the pieces that do excite you
— are masterworks?
E-PS: No, not necessarily. There’s also this
curiosity aspect. Sometimes it’s nice to conduct music which is very
seldom played and very seldom heard, and which doesn’t belong to the most
central repertory. Sometimes it’s music which certainly doesn’t belong
to the real list of masterworks, but that serve an important function as
BD: Do you look for a balance in each of your concerts
with a masterwork, and maybe something of lesser importance?
E-PS: Basically I don’t conduct music that I don’t
believe in. So even if the title ‘masterwork’ doesn’t apply, I avoid
conducting music which I think is not over-high in artistic value.
BD: Is the public right when it decides that something
is what they want to hear again and again, or when it’s something they don’t
ever want to hear again?
E-PS: Not always. There are lots of examples
of wrong judgments from both the critics and the audiences during musical
history. If you think about composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Bruckner,
Mahler, those are people whose greatest works basically gained that popularity
after their death. So the immediate public reaction is not always
something you can rely on.
BD: Do you feel it’s your job to convince the public
about the other works for which you feel passionately?
E-PS: Not necessarily to convince, but my function
partly is to give an alternative, to let the audience have a chance to get
to know some of these works which I believe in and I’m excited about, and
which do not necessarily belong to the central mainstream repertory.
BD: What do you feel is the ultimate purpose of
music in society?
E-PS: [Ponders a moment] I don’t think I’m
able to answer to that question in that form. Music is basically a
biological need in a human being, and as such it doesn’t necessarily have
a purpose in the sense of gaining something because it’s about a biological
phenomenon. In every culture during human history, mankind has had
some sort of musical culture. That tells us about the universal importance
of music, but it doesn’t answer the question of what one possibly gains
by playing or listening to music. So it’s a difficult question.
In our society now, one of the most important functions for classical music
is that it tells us about our connection to the past, and also, in a way,
tells us about our connections with the future. If we have an institution
which is as impractical and as inefficient and as expensive as a symphony
orchestra, the fact that it still exists very intensely and has audiences
that are growing, there has to be an important message somewhere. One
of the most important things is that playing music from the Classical period,
for instance, can show that something that was written two hundred years
ago, or three hundred years ago can still be vital and exciting today. It
tells us that we have our place in the history of this civilization. So
I think that is the primary function of classical music at the moment.
* * *
BD: Is there any real difference in the music that
comes out of Scandinavia from the music that comes out of Western Europe,
or Eastern Europe or the United States?
E-PS: The most characteristic thing about Scandinavian
music, especially Finnish music, is the fact that it’s culturally between
Western Europe and Eastern Europe. So in Sibelius you can hear influences
from both sides. Finland happens to be in the middle of the Byzantic
and the Catholic culture influence, so it’s basically a place where East
and West meet. That might be a special characteristic of Scandinavian
music. Of course, nowadays the contemporary music which is composed
in Scandinavia has lost its national cultural identity in the sense that
you cannot anymore hear whether these pieces are composed in Tokyo, or in
New York, or in Copenhagen, or in Berlin. The musical language has
become more universal because of the mass-media and the global communication.
BD: Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we’re
losing this identity?
E-PS: The good thing about it is that the musical communication
beyond the limits of language is easier, so there can be more musical
exchange between different cultures without having big syntax problems.
But also it’s a pity that different countries lose their personal characteristics.
With all these satellite TV channels and videos and things there’s
a danger that our whole culture will become more impersonal and colorless
as a result of all these commercial mass-communication systems.
BD: Do you feel that classical music should not
be marketed the way other kinds of popular media are?
E-PS: I don’t know. Sometimes I feel that
the only chance for classical music to survive is to fight the commercial
music with the same weapons — the same hype, the
same artificial star-cult — but I’m not always sure.
Sometimes I feel that one shouldn’t touch that sort of ideology at all, and
just let classical music be interesting because of its own artistic value.
But it’s difficult to tell. Obviously, mass-media is the most efficient
way to reach people, so why not to use it? [Vis-à-vis the
recording shown at left, see my Interviews with Dawn Upshaw, and Gidon Kremer.]
BD: Then where, for you, is the balance between
the entertainment value and the artistic achievement in classical music?
E-PS: It’s difficult to tell because people have
different reasons why they go to concerts and why they buy records.
But I feel that a contemporary music concert is less entertainment and more
cultural excitement than a popular classical concert with a major orchestra
and a major conductor and a major soloist. But that doesn’t necessarily
mean the artistic value of contemporary music goes this higher, so an interesting
artistic event is a mixture of those two aspects — provocation
and fulfilling of spiritual needs.
BD: Do you feel any special commitment to yourself
towards contemporary music or new works?
E-PS: Yes. Almost fifty per cent of my repertory
is music which has been composed during the last two decades.
BD: Will it continue to be? Are you going
to continue to search out new scores for the rest of your career?
E-PS: Yes. I’m more and more convinced
about the importance of contemporary music, and that’s my number one field
of interest. For me it’s the most natural way to communicate with
my own time, with my own society — to perform works
that have been written recently — which doesn’t mean
that I don’t like and love all these old masterpieces. But somehow,
I feel in the cultural environment, the musical environment, today there’s
no balance between historical music and contemporary music. This is
a well-known fact, of course, but when Brahms was active as a composer,
all the symphony concerts were contemporary music concerts. No one
ever played ‘old music’. It was a really rare event. When Mendelssohn
did his first Bach performances, it was unheard of. Something happened
in the beginning of this [twentieth] century so all the concert programs
became more conservative and conventional. I think it’s not really
a healthy situation. Somewhere there’s this gap between the audience
and the composers, and I don’t really know why it didn’t exist before and
why it exists now.
BD: What advice do you have for composers who are
E-PS: [Thinks a moment] Actually I wouldn’t
advise so much composers. I would rather advise orchestras, and also
orchestra managers, and conductors, and critics, and record companies to
help these people who write music today. There’s a lot of good music
being written today all over the world. It doesn’t get enough publicity,
and it doesn’t reach enough audience because of all these conventions and
all these commercial aspects. Actually in composers we have a potential
which we don’t use.
BD: So you’re urging them just simply to write
E-PS: Yes. What I’m saying to composers
is keep on composing. It’s our responsibility as conductors, performers,
musical organizers, and agents and so forth to make this music known.
BD: What advice do you have for the audience who
comes to hear a piece of new music?
E-PS: If they already come to hear a piece of new
music on the program, that audience is already enlightened. So to
those people I have nothing to say, just to congratulate them. But
audiences basically believe what the mass-media says if
it’s written in a convincing way. So it’s basically
that the programs reflect the bad communication between mass-media and
the creative artist today.
* * *
BD: You make quite a lot of recordings. Do
you conduct any differently in the recording studio than you do in the
E-PS: I believe so, yes, because I don’t feel that
a good recording is a substitute for a concert. Ideally a good recording
is something else. It’s a different form of art, and in this sense
Glenn Gould is one of my recording heroes because he had the courage
to use the media in a way which was unheard of before. There are
not that many people who’ve done that sort of thing since, either.
My readings in the recording studios are more analytical, more provocative,
and perhaps a little bit more clinical.
BD: Not enough heart?
E-PS: No, I don’t believe in the polarity of heart and
brain in music. It’s a superficial analysis to divide musical personalities
into two groups — heart and brain — because
it’s too simple to be true. But I feel that the recording should
reveal something of a piece of music which doesn’t necessarily come out
in a concert situation, and ideally it would convey something which offers
a new aspect to that particular work.
BD: Do you ever feel that you’re competing against
your recording when you’re conducting a concert of the same music?
E-PS: Not really because my starting point is a
little bit different when I conduct the concert. In a concert you
also create an atmosphere. It’s a communication situation between
the orchestra and the audience, and between the conductor and the orchestra,
whereas in a recording it’s only a one-way communication. A concert
is a trial drama, so to speak, so it’s entirely different for me.
BD: When you’re preparing a symphony concert, do
you do all the work in rehearsal, or do you leave a little bit for that
spark of inspiration at the actual performance?
E-PS: This depends. Actually I would rather
not leave anything for the concert [bursts out laughing] but as we almost
never get enough rehearsal time in order to really work meticulously on
every possible detail, there’s always something left to the concert as well.
There are always some unsolved moments, and it might be an advantage
sometimes. But sometimes it clearly isn’t, so it depends. Sometimes
I rather enjoy doing very difficult works with very little rehearsal time
— if the orchestra is good enough.
BD: Do you adjust your conducting style at all
for the size of the house — large house, small house?
E-PS: That is something I haven’t really thought
of. It might be true. [Thinks a moment] It might have
a certain effect on tempi and so forth, but I haven’t really thought of
it. The auditory response you get when you are conducting a piece
of music has a certain of effect on your next move. Your rehearsal
actually controls the next moment of making a decision of tempo, or phrasing,
but since a lot of those things happen in the basic nerve system instead
of cortex, it’s difficult to tell how much one adjusts.
BD: Have you done any opera at all?
E-PS: Very little. The only real opera production
I’ve done thus far was Wozzeck in Stockholm in ’84. There
were fifteen performances of a new production, and I haven’t done any other
operas except a couple of productions for the Swedish TV. My next
opera production is going to be next year in Florence at the Maggio Musicale
of Pelléas and Mélisande.
BD: Do you want to do a little more opera, or do
you find you just don’t have time for it? Or is it something that
doesn’t really interest you?
E-PS: Actually it does interest me. It’s
a question of planning, and also a question of time. I had a little
frustrating experience from my first opera production as I didn’t always
have the same players in my performances as I had in my rehearsals, and
in a piece like Wozzeck, it certainly does a lot of harm. So
immediately after those performances, I decided never again if I’m not able
to get different contracts. Now in Florence they promise that I would
have exactly the same players from the first rehearsal to the last performance.
So that’s why I thought it would be nice to try again. Also
the piece is one of my very favorite musical works, so I’m quite excited
BD: Are there some pieces that you like to play over
and over again, so you re-program them many times?
E-PS: Yes. It’s also a practical question
because there has to be a certain limit for your repertory. The number
of works you do in a season cannot be unlimited in terms of having the
necessary time for study. So you have to limit your repertory.
So there are some works that I conduct over and over again. Actually,
I had this funny experience. Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony is one
of those works I’ve conducted a lot lately, and last year in Los Angeles
I did three performances of it, and afterwards the orchestra manager told
me that the durations of all three performances happened to be identical
within three seconds.
BD: Does that make you happy?
E-PS: No, actually scares me a little bit because
then you will have reached the state where you function like a machine.
You’re not anymore a creative unit if you reach this sort of a scientific
accuracy in your tempi. So then I decided to leave that symphony
for a couple of years, and take it to my desk again to re-study and see
what I think about the work after a break.
BD: Will you come to it with a clean score?
E-PS: Yes, I’ll buy a new one without my old markings.
So now Sibelius Five is on sabbatical at the moment.
* * *
BD: Do you like working with an orchestra for just
a week or two weeks at a time, and then moving onto the next orchestra
for a week or two weeks?
E-PS: That is actually something I am trying to avoid,
so I’m doing less and less pure guest conducting in the future. Typically
what happens is that you meet an orchestra and you play three or four
concerts with them. Then in the last concert, or the penultimate concert,
you feel you have actually reached a level of communication which could
be a good starting point, and then you’ve got to move to the next place.
So that is something which not artistically very satisfactory in the long-run.
It might be exciting, it might be interesting — especially
now when I meet orchestras like the Chicago Symphony, or the Berlin Philharmonic.
That’s always an exciting experience even if you don’t reach the
ideal state of communication during such a short time. But in the
future, I’ll guest conduct less and concentrate more on a fewer number
of ensembles, like four or five orchestras.
BD: From your point of view, what is the real difference
between a group such as the Chicago Symphony and maybe a group of lesser
renown? Is it just the technical perfection, or is there something
E-PS: Each orchestra has its own personality, of
course. It’s a thing which is very difficult to describe, but the
Chicago Symphony is like a racehorse in the sense that to get a good result
from such an orchestra you don’t have to force things. Actually you
shouldn’t ever force things. You should just use small gestures and
just give hints and impulses instead of having a rigid type of command over
the players. Here you can give a lot of freedom to the players because
they have this discipline and they have this tradition. They know exactly
what to do, so it is different conducting an orchestra like the Chicago Symphony
from many other orchestras. Elsewhere the artistic level, the technical
level of the individual players might be as high or even higher, but there’s
not the same sort of discipline, not the same sort of unified musical thought.
So it is different.
BD: When you’re doing a concerto, whose ideas override
— your ideas or the soloist’s?
E-PS: The soloist’s because in most of the cases
the soloist has played the piece five hundred times, and I’m doing it
for the fifth time, or for the first time. Also, for a soloist who
is on tour with a piece which he plays over and over again, it’s much more
difficult for him to adjust to the conductor’s ideas. For a conductor
it’s much easier to adjust because it’s not a technical problem. You
have to be flexible in mind, whereas the soloist has to make different technical
solutions if there are different ideas about tempi and so forth.
BD: Do you enjoy accompanying concertos?
E-PS: Most of the time, yes, but of course there
are situations when you have a soloist who thinks completely differently,
and there’s no rapport whatsoever. Things can get very difficult, but
that doesn’t happen often.
BD: Then do you make sure you don’t work with that
E-PS: Perhaps, but even so, a professional musician
should be able to adjust. Even if it makes you mad, you should
be able to do it anyway.
BD: Is there anything you should not be expected
E-PS: [Ponders the question] From whose point
BD: We seem to have a picture of conductors as
being supermen. They can do anything, they can conduct anything,
they can bring anything to life.
E-PS: [Smiles] Well, this depends very much
as your mood varies from day to day. You’re doing basically the
same things with different orchestras, and the communication works in
different ways, so there are no safe cards, so to speak. There are
no things which are doomed to failure beforehand, so this is always something
which is flexible. But I know there are some composers who clearly
are more difficult for me than some other composers, and although in certain
cases I do like the music a lot, I just keep away from them myself.
BD: Is conducting fun?
E-PS: Most of the time, yes. The actual act
of conducting is mostly fun, but the sort of life which is the result of
having an international conducting career is not always as fun as the conducting
BD: Is it worth the sacrifices?
E-PS: Thus far I feel so, but in the future I’m
going to cut down my conducting weeks to get more time for my composition
work, and also more time for human life.
BD: You’re also a composer?
E-PS: Yes, that was my main subject in school,
actually. I’m trying to keep up with it, even though I am conducting
forty-five weeks a year. It’s difficult, so that’s one of the reasons
I’m going to cut down in the future.
BD: Do you feel that your compositions are perhaps
better because you are such an experienced orchestral director?
E-PS: I haven’t written anything for orchestra since
I started to conduct full-time. I’ve written some chamber music,
solo works, and a little electronic music, so that’s about all. It’s
simply a question of time because to write an orchestral score takes so much
time and needs so much concentration and energy that, at least for me, it’s
impossible to do while you are touring and when you’re not in one place
for a longer period.
BD: If you’re really a composer, why would you
get into conducting?
E-PS: I thought it might be useful for a composer
to know something about conducting, so I took conducting as a second subject.
Later on I realized that conducting was a good way to survive, because
as a composer you don’t survive in economic terms. I conducted some
contemporary music concerts, and conducted my own works, and so forth.
Then I got more conducting jobs, and I was appointed as a guest conductor
at the Finnish National Opera. After that I conducted in Stockholm,
and also Copenhagen, and then finally in London and in Los Angeles. So
I gradually realized that I was a full-time conductor. But I never
had any intention of being a full-time Kapellmeister.
BD: So then you relish the time that you can spend
BD: Are you the ideal interpreter of your music
when you conduct your own works?
E-PS: No. not at all. Actually I realized
several times that I become a very amateurish conductor when I’m conducting
my own music because there’s too much happening inside of your brain.
In that very moment when you rehearse your own works you hear music
which is basically very close to something you dreamed of, but it is not
necessarily exactly the same. So you start thinking whether the problem
is in the playing or in your conducting; whether the problem is your instrumentation
or were you not able to convey your ideas in musical notation. Then
you actually forget about the rehearsals and think about think other things.
So I prefer sitting in the audience listening, and have someone else conduct
my works. That has happened a couple of times, which is very nice.
I can even have a drink before the performance. [Laughs]
* * *
BD: Where’s music going to day?
E-PS: [Laughs] It’s difficult to tell because
at the moment there are no major schools anywhere. In the ’50s
and early ’60s, you could always tell that there’s
this Darmstadt school, and there’s this other group which is not Darmstadt,
and that was basically the two polarities. Now there’s no such a
thing anymore, and so the whole thing is more diffused than ever, which
is nice, I think. There are even no pure minimalists anymore; there
are no pure serialists anymore. The computer is very strongly there
now — at least in Europe and in this country, as well
in certain other places. People do remarkable musical things with
computers, and the musical phenomenon of the ’80s
in musical history will probably be the digital synthesizers which make
digital sound synthesis possible for anyone. Now that micro-computers
can control all these digital synthesizers, that opens completely new horizons
for the development of electronic music that’s vital and revolutionary.
BD: Is there any chance there are perhaps too many
young composers coming along?
E-PS: I don’t know. It’s difficult to measure
what’s a right amount of composers for a culture. There is this Darwinist
mechanism of letting the strongest continue. [Laughs] It sounds
a little bit fascist, but it might be the case. In Europe, especially
Scandinavia, the public interest towards contemporary music and young
composers is perhaps growing at the moment. I don’t know really
what is happening in this country. It might be different.
It is basically different because this is a country of separate mini-cultures.
The California composers don’t necessarily know that much about the
East Coast people, and so this country’s divided into smaller cultural areas.
BD: Are you optimistic about the future of music?
E-PS: Yes, I am, actually. Otherwise I would do something
else if I didn’t feel there was a future for all this I’m doing at the
BD: Tell me about the program you’re bringing in a
few weeks with your Swedish Radio Orchestra.
E-PS: The first piece is by a Swedish composer,
Karl-Birger Blomdahl (1916-1968), a piece called Forma Ferritonans.
Blomdahl was one of the most important modernists in the ’50s
and the ’60s.
BD: Did you ever conduct Aniara [the opera
set aboard a space ship headed for Mars]?
E-PS: No, but that was basically the most important
Scandinavian opera from the ’50s, and is probably
still the most important Scandinavian opera after the Second World War.
That was his main work. [Soprano Elisabeth Söderström,
who sang the leading role, speaks of this work in my interview with her.]
This piece we are bringing to Chicago – Forma Ferritonans
was written for a steel factory. They had an anniversary of some kind,
and they commissioned a piece by Blomdahl. It has a very steely character,
so it’s very exciting piece. Then the second piece in the program
is the Violin Concerto by Nielsen, played by Cho-Liang Lin.
It’s not a very well-known work but it’s gaining more popularity
— at least in Europe at the moment — and
after this tour we are going to record it. That recording is going
to be coupled with the Sibelius Violin Concerto. Then after
a break, we will play the Sibelius First Symphony. So it’s an
all Scandinavian program.
BD: Do you prefer to record music that you’ve
played in the concert hall?
E-PS: Oh, yes, always. That’s important in terms
of sheer rehearsal time because an orchestra learns a lot more about the
piece in a concert than they actually do in a rehearsal. It’s such
a different state of mind, such a different concentration.
BD: You can’t duplicate that in rehearsal?
E-PS: I cannot. I would imagine that some
sort of genius conductor like Carlos Kleiber can
make his rehearsals as interesting as concerts, but I have my doubts.
BD: Will you be back with the Chicago Symphony again?
[Remember, this interview was done at the time of his debut with
E-PS: I hope so. We haven’t actually spoken
about it, but let’s see what happens.
BD: Have you been pleased with what you’ve been
hearing so far?
E-PS: Oh, yes. It’s been a tremendous experience,
and I enjoyed the collaboration very much. Although it’s world-famous
and very prestigious, the orchestra is very flexible, and has sort of easy-going
people as well. So I enjoyed it very much on a personal level, too.
BD: Thank you for coming to Chicago, and for spending this
time with me today.
E-PS: Thank you.
--- --- --- ---
© 1988 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on January 16, 1988.
Portions were broadcast on WNIB two months later, and again in 1993 and
1998; and on WNUR in 2003, 2007, and 2009. This transcription was made
in 2017, and posted on this website at that time. My thanks
to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97
in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in
February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various
magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast
series on WNUR-FM.
You are invited to visit his website for more information about
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