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Barbican Meets: Esa-Pekka Salonen

Photo of Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting
7 Aug 2017

Esa-Pekka Salonen is best-known to London audiences as Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra – but he is also one of the most dynamic of the current generation of Finnish composers. 

As the subject of our 2017–18 Composer Focus, Esa-Pekka’s music was at the core of our programme celebrating 100 years of Finnish independence.

Ahead of his concerts, we put the focus on him to find out more about his career to date.

Why has Finland produced so many extraordinary musicians?
‘I wish I knew! I think it has to do with the history of the country, the legacy of Sibelius, also the education system. I don’t think the Finns are genetically any more suited to composing than any other nation. But I grew up in an atmosphere where it was absolutely OK to be a composer – unlike in many other places where it’s seen as the weirdest of things; this elitist esoteric activity that benefits no-one.’

Your BBC Symphony Orchestra Total Immersion day features music by Einojuhani Rautavaara. What’s his significance to you?
‘He was my first composition teacher: I went to him when I was still in school. And at the time I was often frustrated because he was never a rabid modernist and I, like most teenagers on the planet, wanted to destroy everything and establish my own order. It didn’t quite pan out that way! As the years went by, the things Rautavaara told me that I didn’t understand at the time became more and more important to me. He was trying to help me to be myself, and not to worry about fashion.’

If I conduct young musicians in my music, sometimes they offer a point of view that I wouldn’t have thought of myself

You’ll be conducting the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra in your own LA Variations: what do you learn from working with young people?
‘A lot. If I conduct young musicians in my music, sometimes they offer a point of view that I wouldn’t have thought of myself. And ask any composer – that’s the best experience you can have. All of a sudden there’s a phrase, an emphasis, a colour that I had no idea about, and that’s fantastic. Also, of course, working with young artists I have to sharpen my own tools, because of the questions that are being asked.’

You wrote the piece especially for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Will you try to reproduce their sound?
‘No – it was written with the LA Phil in mind but it’s not a portrait of any particular orchestra. The reason it turned out the way it did has to do with the liberating aspect of California for a tight, dogmatic, young European modernist. But for composers the whole point, the whole pleasure, and actually our dream is that our works have a new life every time they’re played by new people.’

Tell us about your new piece for the LA Phil’s Residency in May.
‘All I can say right now is that it’s a shortish opener for large orchestra. I’m very inspired by the idea of writing something for Gustavo Dudamel, who is a great, great, great, talent and a very important musician in every way. I feel very close to him, and I felt it’s time to write something for him because I know him both as a musician and as a person. Musically, I’m going to go to an area where he doesn’t usually dwell, and we’ll see what comes out of that.’

If we put the whole field of classical music together we actually have millions of people listening. It’s not a niche thing

What can a classical composer offer to contemporary culture?
‘I actually do believe in the music, and I also happen to think that there are many living composers who write music that doesn’t present a problem of being approachable. I’m realistic about not exactly reaching the number of listeners of Rihanna or Beyoncé, but I still think that if someone like me has 100,000 listeners on Spotify every month, that’s not a bad number. And some of my colleagues have more. If we put the whole field together we actually have millions of people listening. It’s not a niche thing.’

Conductor or composer: which is your future?
‘I’m enjoying conducting more than ever before – I’m in a very lucky position where I can work with the best people, and pick and choose. And it keeps me in touch with people. Composing is very lonely and slow and intensely private – it’s supposed to be this weird genius-wandering-in-the-forests thing, but it’s never been that. Conducting keeps me in touch with the human side of things.’

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