Conductor / Composer  Esa - Pekka  Salonen

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.

salonen 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 youare 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 well. 

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?

salonen 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-cultbut 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 recentlywhich 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 writing today?

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 more?

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 concert hall?

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?

salonen 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 brainbecause 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 about it.

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?

salonen 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 more?   

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 soloist again?

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 to do?  

E-PS:   [Ponders the question]  From whose point of view?

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.

salonen 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 itself.

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 composing?

E-PS:   Yes.

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 nowat 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?

salonen 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 moment.

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 popularityat least in Europe at the momentand 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 the Orchestra.]

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.

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© 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.

Award - 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 his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.