Q&A with Esa-Pekka Salonen: First, he takes Manhattan
Tue Jun 15 2010
Turns out there is life after Los Angeles, at least for Esa-Pekka Salonen. Rather than shrink into the sidelines, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's former music director has been giving performances (and compositions) as fantastic as those of his L.A. successor, Gustavo Dudamel. Salonen made a smashing Metropolitan Opera debut conducting the company's astonishing new production of From the House of the Dead, and next year he cozies up with the New York Philharmonic for its Hungarian Echoes festival. Meanwhile, he provides the score to ballet master in chief (and fellow Scandinavian) Peter Martins's latest work with the New York City Ballet, a violin concerto featuring hot Canadian soloist Leila Josefowicz and Salonen himself in the pit (on June 22, 23 and 26). Click past the jump to find out more on the collaboration, Salonen's brush with real-estate royalty and how he's handling life outside of Southern California.
The Volume: You've been omnipresent at Lincoln Center lately—the Met, NYCB, the Phil. Is this all part of your plan for citywide domination?
Esa-Pekka Salonen: [Laughs] It just happens to be this kind of concentration of work. But I love New York; I think it's great to be there and I find it very stimulating. I'm very pleased that I have so many opportunities at the moment.
You've written a violin concerto for the New York City Ballet. How would you describe the piece?
I had this idea that I would like to write a piece that has a very wide emotional and expressive range, and that it would cover the gamut of musical textures and expressions—within the realm of the idea of a violin concerto, obviously. I really wanted to have a physical element and a virtuoso element, but also a great range of different moods and expressions.
Sounds like it plays right into Peter Martins's style as a choreographer.
Interestingly, we didn't talk about the content very much about this project. His attitude was very simple: He said "Well, you write the piece and send it to me." And I thought that this company has such a history with challenging new pieces and there are so many landmarks that complexity is not something that would frighten them easily. I felt completely free in this way when I set up to write the piece, and I decided to make one of the movements a sort of a dance movement. Obviously [I did] not have any kind of particularities in mind, but the third movement has the most physical expression in the piece, with a pointed rhythm and very physical gestures.
It feels like this is a new era for City Ballet with all of the new works being commissioned this season—the company's relationship with composers such as yourself is reminiscent of George Balanchine's relationship with Igor Stravinsky.
And I don't think that there's any other ballet company in the world that would have contributed in this way, in the world of new music and new ballet in the same way, since the Ballets Russes. So I think what Balanchine started and his successors have maintained is fairly unique in the world of dance, still today.
You also have a Stravinsky connection from the time you spent in L.A. Didn't you almost buy Stravinsky's old house?
Well, I was seriously tempted by it, until I came to my senses with a little bit of help from my friends. But yes, I went to see it. It was a foreclosure. My then-P.A. at the L.A. Philharmonic had seen the ad in the paper, and he called me and said, "Look, there's this showing of a house this afternoon and the address looks oddly familiar." And it turned out to be Stravinsky's house, and I went to see it. I had this dream of owning the house and, you know, eating in his kitchen and writing my music in his studio. But of course, a friend of mine who was there with me said he saw I was getting a little glaze in my eyes. I sat on the floor of his studio and the marks from his two pianos were still there in that carpet. He said, "Well, just imagine trying to write one note in this room. Don't you think that life is difficult enough as it is?" I said, "Well, yeah, in fact you're right." And also it would have been a completely impractical house for my family and my kids, who were little at the time. It would have been a completely wrong position, but I had the dream—a very powerful dream that day.... The sad thing about that whole thing is, of course, it was sold eventually to somebody who didn't like the pilgrims outside his house. They have let the hedge grow, and the house is no longer visible from the street. I think they just got fed up with the constant stream of music lovers from everywhere in the world who came to have themselves photographed in front of the house. You know, if privacy is what you want, you shouldn't live in a house that's a monument.
Last year was your farewell with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. How have you adjusted to living outside of Southern California?
Oh, I miss the weather. I miss lots of things. I miss my friends, of course and I miss lots of aspects of my life in L.A. And yet at the same time I know that I made the right decision: I left when things were still going great, and I'm really looking forward to meeting the orchestra again in November. The risk of really long-term relationships between orchestras and conductors is that things start to deteriorate at some point, and both parties are so used to each other that there's not enough sensitivity or alertness to the situation. That dysfunctional relationship just continues. I valued my relationship with the Philharmonic so much that I decided that I would go before there are any sort of clear or visible or audible types of fatigue in the relationship. I'm really pleased I made that decision; I left with the orchestra in great shape and on very warm terms, and I am very happy for the success of my successor. I completely approved of the choice of successor, and I am just very proud of the vitality that the organization is showing at the moment.
It's just a shame that they replaced you with this no-name conductor.
[Laughs] I know, I know. But the good news is that he's a very well-rounded guy and he's completely sane. So it takes a lot to make him insane, despite the best efforts of the media. I think he's stronger than that.