A Musician’s Maestro: SF Symphony’s Esa-Pekka Salonen | The Interview

A Musician's Maestro: SF Symphony's Esa-Pekka Salonen | The Interview

The Finnish conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen joined San Francisco Symphony as music director in 2021, following tenures with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

From an early age, Esa-Pekka Salonen knew music was his destiny. Yet he never dreamed that one day he’d be an internationally renowned composer and conductor.

Born in Helsinki, Finland, to a businessman father and homemaker mother, Salonen took up the French horn, studied at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and began conducting when his band of young musicians was in need of one. He clearly had a knack for it.

Salonen’s big break came in 1983 when he stepped in, with just a few days’ notice, for Michael Tilson Thomas to conduct Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 with the Philharmonia in London. Salonen was only 25 years old at the time, but it was evident from that performance that the young Finn with the long hair was destined for greatness.

In 1992, Salonen moved his family to Los Angeles, where he became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. During his tenure, which lasted until 2009, he was instrumental in opening the Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by legendary architect Frank Gehry. In 2008, Salonen returned to Europe and the Philharmonia, serving as its principal conductor and artistic advisor before becoming music director of the San Francisco Symphony in the 2020–21 season, succeeding Tilson Thomas.

On a recent afternoon, Salonen and I sat in his stark office at Davies Symphony Hall, where we talked about conducting, composing and the relational nature of music.

So, what exactly does a conductor do? The conductor has multiple functions. On some level, he or she is like a team coach, who gives his or her players — musicians — certain strategies, certain methods, certain concepts and hopefully inspires them. I think that’s 90 percent of it really.

In many cases the musicians have played these pieces many times before, but knowing is not the same thing as having a concept. A conductor has a concept and then he or she, during the rehearsals, realizes that concept. In some cases it can be a very precise, rigid concept. In some cases it can be more like, “OK, let’s have a creative dialogue about things.”

Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen and architect Frank Gehry, who worked together in Los Angeles during the construction of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, attended the opening of San Francisco Symphony’s 2022–2023 season at Davies Symphony Hall.

Has your style of conducting evolved over the years? The whole process of conducting, the mechanics of conducting, is about optimizing. Trying to create a gestural vocabulary that very clearly conveys what goes on in my mind, musically. So over the years, partly consciously, partly intuitively, I’ve learned how to do it simply. How to keep things together and how to give people enough flexibility and freedom, and yet steer it. And that balance is very hard to find, also because orchestras are different. That’s why, personally, I like the idea of working with the same group for a long time and intensely, hundreds and thousands of hours, and then you get to a point where things seem to be happening by osmosis, which to me is the ideal leadership. So you’re not controlling, it’s more like you create a flow and everybody becomes part of it.

How would you describe your relationship with the players? When I speak to young conductors about conducting, often the very first thing I say is, “Don’t forget that you’re conducting people. You’re not conducting the second clarinet. You’re not conducting the first trombone. You’re conducting a person who plays that instrument.” Very hard to explain this, but sometimes when people, young people, want to become conductors, they think that this is some kind of a mythological thing, this maestro thing and the images of Herbert von Karajan with the silver hair staring into the horizon and being godlike. None of that is necessary and even true.

How did you begin conducting? When I started studying conducting, we had a group of young composers at the time called Ears Open. Many of those then-young composers are now very well known, some internationally even. We felt that no “real” conductors were interested in our music, so we decided to start an association that would perform new music by young composers. And we needed a conductor, and I had maybe the most experience of performing music, because I was a French horn player and I played in the Helsinki orchestras as a sub. So I became the conductor of the group. …

My pal played the violin, and another pal played piano, percussion, and I conducted, because somebody had to do it. I grew up in an environment where conducting was just one activity among other musical activities. No better, no worse. I, not for a second, thought of myself as being more important than, say, a friend who played the viola or the flute. It was just a different function. I’m deeply grateful for that experience because it has helped me later in life in terms of how I communicate with musicians, because my function is to keep things going. Not dictate, but enable, give them tools to achieve a certain result.

That takes a certain leadership skill. Leadership, absolutely, but my starting point is still the same as it was then. … Everybody is an integral part of this rather reckless thing that a symphony orchestra can be. I don’t like formality particularly. I think if people want to call me maestro, that’s OK, because my name is so difficult to pronounce for non-Finnish speakers. Basically “maestro” is a teacher. That’s the original meaning of the word.

It sounds like your initial experience conducting has kept you grounded. It’s hard to say from within how grounded I am, but the very fact that I’ve gotten this far without major catastrophe, I must be doing something right. Which is not to say that there wouldn’t be room for improvement, and that’s the fun part actually, because I’m nearing an age where many other people are planning their retirement and slowing down and enjoying life. My feeling is, I’m just starting. We have opened the [2022–23] season, which is the first real season after the lockdown with my new orchestra. We’re finally in business, and we’re finally playing all this repertoire that we were supposed to be playing two and a half years ago.

Salonen conducts Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with SF Symphony during its 2022 Opening Night Gala Concert.

Where did your love of music come from? I have no idea. I don’t come from a musical family. My dad was a businessman and my mom was mostly at home. [My mom] claims that when I was very little, I reacted strongly to music. She wanted me to start taking piano lessons when I was 4 years old, and I refused. She was wise enough not to force it. Then, a few years went by and I just heard something on the radio and became aware of this thing called music, and all of a sudden it just hit me. I cannot really remember what happened, because we create these narratives later on in life that fit the bigger narrative. But nevertheless, I moved from primary school to an experimental school where they had a lot of emphasis on the arts. Almost every kid played something, so it was just normal, like breathing. I started playing instruments, started with the recorder.

As they all do. That’s the real test. If you still love music after a semester in the plastic recorder group, then something’s going on. Then I played the trumpet, and I changed to the French horn, which became my main instrument. Then I started taking the piano lessons that I should’ve been taking several years earlier. When I was about 11, I kind of knew that this was it. There was nothing else in the world that would excite me as much. I had an idea then — which I’m happy to say was correct — that it’s endless. It’s like you are never finished. You are never ready. There are always things to learn.

And that appealed to you? I just remember this sense of vastness. … You’re hiking and all of a sudden you come to this amazing vista like a canyon and mountains, and it seems endless and limitless and totally fascinating. And also, in a positive way, beyond your grasp, uncontainable, which of course is a good thing for something that becomes your life’s work. There’s never a moment when you think, “OK, done.”

That’s a very profound thought for a little boy. Obviously I wouldn’t have been able to verbalize it, but it was just a sense I’m never going to get tired of this. There were lots of things I got bored with, but not this.

You are also a composer. When did you start writing music? Composing came very naturally. I heard some contemporary classical pieces randomly on the radio when I was maybe 11 and I thought, “OK, if music can sound like this, then I have to be able to write it myself.” So I started studying music theory, but I had no career thoughts.

Salonen presenting at the Apple Distinguished Educators conference in Amsterdam in July 2015.

I’ve heard you say when you left Europe and came to the States, you experienced a new freedom in your writing, that you were liberated. How so? After [World War II], there was a movement in European classical music, the very strict modernist movement led by people like [KarlheinzStockhausen and Pierre Boulez. It became mainstream in a funny way. The rules were very strict, and the list of things that were taboo was long. I had this dichotomy. Obviously I went with the way I was taught and trained, but the music that I loved to conduct was this very rich, sonorous, powerful music with pulse and sweeping melodies, like Stravinsky, Mahler, Bruckner. Somehow I couldn’t combine the two. They were two different worlds. Composing became very difficult, because I felt I wasn’t expressing the true me, whatever that is. Then when I moved to L.A. back in the early ’90s, all of a sudden I felt, “OK, I’m far enough away from Europe and all these gurus and rigid aesthetics.”

Wow. So you really did find yourself in California? Yes, I did. I mean, positively. I came with the weight of the European tradition. … Shakespeare’s the greatest dramatist, Beethoven’s the greatest symphonist, Michelangelo is the greatest sculptor. And I’m going to this country and sharing all this. To my credit, I was smart enough to figure out in California that, “OK, as a matter of fact, I have a lot to learn from these people.” And the questions! When I spoke about the complexities and construction and the theory behind a piece of music, people said, “Yeah, that’s all great, but what am I supposed to be feeling? What does it tell me?” And I’m like, “What are you talking about?”

Was that an issue with your orchestra when you were with the Los Angeles Philharmonic? I was very young to be in that position to start with. I had very little experience of the U.S. culture and ways and habits and so on. I was very afraid of being somehow tarnished in this whole Hollywood thing, which now I would be happy to be tarnished a little more.

I heard, in the ’90s, you turned down being named one of People magazine’s 50 sexiest people on earth. Yeah, but now if somebody asked the same question, I would say, “Yeah, happy to be in.” Maybe it was the right thing to do, because I was very worried about my integrity, especially in L.A. I mean, it would’ve been easier here [in San Francisco] for a young person, but L.A. … This entertainment business is so omnipresent, and it’s also ruthless. You’re riding the wave for a while and then nothing. Emptiness and so on. I think I did find a way to navigate all that.

You were instrumental in helping open Frank Gehry’s iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and I know that was no easy feat. The initial gift from Lillian Disney came, I think, in ’86 or ’87. I was a music director designate from ’89, so I was part of the process from then. I would say there were at least 10 times when we all thought that the project was dead in the water. And, of course, the riots happened and it seemed to be a completely wrong time to be discussing a new concert hall in downtown L.A. But then the critical mass was reached at some point. There were enough influential, enthusiastic people who saw the potential and the importance, and then it really got going again.

Esa-Pekka Salonen on a summer 2019 respite and at the grill in Aix-En-Provence, France.

What was it like when it opened? I had a few moments before the actual opening, when I knew that something extraordinary was about to happen. There was the very first time Frank [Gehry] and I listened to music in the hall, played by the concertmaster of the L.A. Philharmonic, just one violin. And there was no stage yet. It was just a gaping hole. It was a hard-hat area still, so Frank and I, we sat in the balcony, far back. We were so nervous, we had a couple vodkas before the moment, and then the sound of violin started kind of floating in the space and we knew, “OK, it works.”

Let me take you back to another performance. By all accounts, you stepped onto the international stage when you were called upon to take over for an indisposed Michael Tilson Thomas at the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1983. Correct.

You’re in London and 25 years old. Tell me about that performance. First of all, I’m quite a rational guy, but I think that there’s some kind of beautiful fate that I replaced Michael, and then several decades later, I end up being his successor [at SF Symphony]. He said the same thing himself — things seem to be intertwined.

I certainly believe in destiny. That was still a time when I wasn’t planning to have any kind of conducting career. I was conducting because I liked it and conducting was needed and it seemed to come fairly naturally to me. Not that I felt that I was a master conductor by any means. It just felt like a natural way to interact with other musicians. I had a manager at the time who calls me, and it was kind of early, and says, “So how about Mahler’s Three with the Philharmonia Orchestra?” I thought he was joking, and I used language that I will not repeat here. He called again two hours later and said, “I wasn’t joking, and maybe you feel a little better about it and this is a serious question. So do you want to do it?” So I called the manager of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and they sent the score from the Finnish radio library for me to look at, and I leafed through it and I thought, “OK, well, nothing to lose, I’ll do it.”

That’s amazing. I had three days to prepare or something like that. I didn’t sleep much. Then I flew to London, did one day of rehearsal and then the concert. So it was all very compact. But I wasn’t nervous because I thought, there are two possible outcomes: Either it goes well or it doesn’t. If it goes well, fine. If it doesn’t, at least I could tell my grandchildren that I conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra once and I’ll just carry on. The orchestra was wonderful; they were super-supportive and good-natured and warm. And then it’s a cliché, but my life did change overnight. All of a sudden, telexes were ticking away.

Years later, you became the principal conductor and artistic advisor of that very orchestra. What was your proudest accomplishment there? Very hard to say, because there’s no concrete monument like the Disney Hall. I tried to reimagine the season because the sheer volume of cultural life in London is insane. Every night there are at least 15 concerts happening and five symphony orchestras. So the white-noise level is so strong that you need ways to cut through it rather than just put on a concert with some kind of normal program. I tried to create themes that would focus on either a composer or a certain historic period or a place, such as Paris. I found that method quite successful in London, in terms of creating a profound identity.

What brought you to San Francisco? First of all, I had already decided to step down in London because I thought the Philharmonia is a great orchestra, London is a super-exciting city and all that, but the schedule of a London orchestra is very tough. Constantly on the road, and for years I had the feeling that I wasn’t living anywhere. My marriage fell apart, and I was really, I wouldn’t say drifting, but I didn’t feel I had an anchor.

So I decided to maybe just spend more time in Finland or something like that, and then the [San Francisco] Symphony came calling. We started talking and I thought, “OK, this is a very, very good orchestra conducted by a friend of mine and a colleague I admire a lot.” Michael was one of my heroes since the very beginning. So there was that. And it’s back to California. … I thought this is a place where ideas have been born, and some of the most astonishing success stories in terms of innovation happen. And I thought maybe if a symphony orchestra would be the equivalent of some of these other innovative aspects of this town, it would be deeply satisfying and also super-exciting. And I would be closer to my kids.

Did you come in with a grand vision, or were you willing to just let things unfold? We had quite extensive plans, and then the pandemic happened. So, my last season in London and my first season here didn’t happen, which was the weirdest thing. No proper send-off, but also no proper welcome.

It’s unfortunate on both sides. We went back to the drawing board, obviously. And last season, which was the first season of public concerts, was still a bit like a hybrid. The audiences were not completely back, and also the programming was hybrid. We all feel that now these [recent] weeks have been the real opening, and we are finally getting going, and there are all kinds of exciting plans in the pipeline.

It’s inevitable that people will make comparisons between MTT and you. How will things be different under your direction? It’s very hard to say, because obviously we are very different people, and we are very different musicians, and yet there’s a lot that unites us. I mean, if I were to choose one conductor from the older generation with whom I share many ideas, it would be Michael, and also I’ve learned a lot from him. So, we’re very similar in spirit, I think; very different in execution.

If you weren’t conducting and composing, what would you be doing with your life? I have no idea. I really don’t. I mean, I like the arts generally. I read a lot. I like the visual arts. I love theater, cinema and basically everything. So maybe I would be doing something else. Film maybe.

What inspires you to create? That’s a very hard question because there’s no one thing that it can be. Nature, for sure, especially the sea. It can be something I read. It can be something I see, like a painting, and sometimes it’s this thing which is very difficult to define, like [an] encounter with otherness. Like getting a glimpse to another culture or a completely different way of thinking or something that is completely unexpected and intense, and that encounter sets some things in motion, maybe long afterwards.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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