Friday, April 27, 2007

Esa-Pekka Salonen finds composing a tough assignment

"I'm not going through this again in a hurry", says composer-conductor after New York concerto première

By Vesa Sirén in New York City
From HELSINGIN SANOMAT - Friday 27.4.2007

Esa-Pekka Salonen is threatened with a new experience in New York: a day off! "It will be the first since August", says the Finn, who has just put himself through the mill in composing - and then conducting - a new piano concerto as a commission for the New York Philharmonic. "This concerto really took it out of me, I can tell you."
The 48-year-old conductor sits looking exhausted in an armchair in his suite on the 10th floor of the Trump Tower International Hotel on Columbus Circle. "I'm not going through this again in a hurry."
Once again, time to compose was seriously rationed, since Salonen is still the Music Director and Chief Conductor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and one of the world's most in-demand guest conductors. Hence it was hardly a surprise that the new concerto, promised to soloist Yefim Bronfman already back in the 1990s, was only completed at the last minute. "It ended up with some old-fashioned burning of the midnight oil", admits Salonen. "The whole of the Christmas break went in composing, too. My family were understanding, but I did get to hear that this was not exactly the most brilliant piece of planning ever."
While the composing process was at its most heated, Salonen also had to cancel a week of conducting engagements in Paris on health grounds. "I'd been sitting in my studio writing for seven weeks and my shoulders had simply seized up. It didn't seem as though it was in anybody's best interests to have me getting up on stage to conduct rehearsals as a half-fit zombie." Salonen was pondering the mysteries of the piano and the orchestra in the studio in his home in Brentwood, in L.A. There he has the computers and the keyboard apparatus that helped in the shaping of the new work. "My own piano playing is pretty rudimentary bashing of the keys, but it was important to retain some kind of physical contact with the instrument. I used a sequencer to upload the piano part onto the computer and then corrected the wrong notes for the right ones."
When the piano score for the first movement was completed in October last year, Yefim Bronfman had observed to the composer that it didn't look to be too difficult an assignment for the soloist. This stirred a defiant response in Salonen. "I had the feeling that I had better ratchet things up a bit! Towards the end of the concerto I got this fit of sheer devilment, and I ended up composing the most difficult piano music I could imagine. Then again, Fima [Yefim Bronfman] will play it all the same. He'll swear at me, and he'll play it."
Bronfman only received the piano score for the finale in December. As for the orchestral part, Salonen was still making last-ditch adjustments in this hotel room on the night before the first performance. Outside it is beginning to get dark. The hotel windows overlook Central Park. Next to Salonen's laptop on the table is a gold-plated telescope! What's this? Do you always travel with one of these? "No, no, it's part of the hotel requisites. Apparently in the summer you can look at what the young couples are getting up to in Central Park - if that's your sort of thing", Salonen shrugs.
Salonen's own voyeurism has been restricted to peering at different aspects of music history in his composing. The concerto contains echoes of the French Baroque, impressionism, the work of Witold Lutoslawski, and folk music from the Balkans. "And there was also something Russian in there. Maybe Bronfman's background [the pianist was born in Tashkent in Uzbekistan] had some kind of subconscious effect. My concerto is like a jigsaw puzzle with very sharp edges to the pieces. There's a sort of film-like montage construction about it."
Salonen is clearly very enthusiastic about his major work, in which serious elements and clowning share the stage by turns. He talks amusingly about a passage where "clumsy winds and brass in the lower register" start to think they are actually piccolos and get into behaving "like hippos trying to perform a pirouette".
"I guess their image of themselves has started to get bent out of shape, as it does with us middle-aged men! The mind is still that of a teenager, but the body is starting to say no, and the joints are aching." A-ha. So was that a bit of autobiographical self-irony thrown in there? Salonen admits at least that he's not going to get any younger. "Unfortunately." Hence he has to adapt and evolve. Salonen has cut back on his conducting schedule, from as many as 40 weeks a year down to twenty-five. "That will also leave me more time for composing", he believes. From one year to the next, Esa-Pekka Salonen has been repeating that he will give up his post in Los Angeles "in the next few years" to concentrate more on his composing side. Once again, he says he will carry on in L.A. "for a few more years".
"I've led the Philharmonic for fifteen years now. If I could beat Zubin Mehta's record, even just by a day or two! He conducted the same orchestra for seventeen years." Salonen's best-laid plans seem full of contradictions. To cap it all, he agreed late last year to become the Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. How on earth does he think he is going to find more time for composing, when he will soon enough have not one but two orchestras under his charge? "I'll cut down on my guest conducting appearances", he explains. "Around 10 to 12 weeks will be spent in Los Angeles, 8-10 in London and then I will conduct only a couple of weeks each year elsewhere."
Salonen is attracted by the idea of reducing the number of individual programmes to be rehearsed, but with the Philharmonia he plans also to take them on the road on short hops to Europe after the London Royal Festival Hall concert performances. He will be spending at least a part of his free time in the next few days in an airplane seat. "I'm flying from New York to Helsinki to see my mother, and I'll spend a few nights hanging out in the bar with Limperi (composer Magnus Lindberg). Then I fly back to Los Angeles and I'll check in to some spa or other to drink foul-tasting health juices and do some yoga-ing and levitation stuff", he says with a mixture of a grin and a grimace. His next big composition should be ready by early in 2009. This is a work for soloists, choir, and orchestra, and has been commissioned by the Chicago Symphony and the Berlin Philharmonic. "I think that will have to be the last of my commissioned works, so that I don't get caught in the mill of deadlines again. It is better to compose something in all peace and quiet and get it practically ready, and only then to decide where and when to have the first performance."
Salonen's dreams also include finally getting around to composing his first opera, some time after 2009."It could be based on texts by Joseph Brodsky [the Nobel Literature Laureate in 1987], since I have got permission from his estate to compose something around his last anthology."
The first performance of the concerto arrives, and the applause, long and sustained. After the concert, Salonen and Bronfman, friends as well as colleagues, raise a glass and wonder aloud at what a huge task it has all been. "For nine months I was working on it practically every day", sighs Salonen. "And then in half an hour it is done and dusted."
But it is not: the work itself has only begun to live its life. Next it will travel to the Proms in London, and at the earliest it can be expected in Helsinki some time in 2008. "It is an important work, and I intend to play it a lot", says Bronfman, and the big man squats down to Salonen's size as a press photographer approaches them. "You see, I want to look up to a great composer", says Bronfman, and there is no flicker of a smile on his face as he says it.

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