esa-pekka and the nordic music days

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo: Benjamin Suomela

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo: Benjamin Suomela

In a speech at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music in 2010, Esa-Pekka Salonen wrestled with mankind’s 'urge to control the uncontrollable... to fight chaos with aesthetics.’ His words were intended as a crystallisation of our collective and apparently endless quest for clarity – scientific, poetic, existential. But it’s difficult not to read them now as a pinpoint summation of Salonen’s own dual role as a major conductor of ensembles and an active composer of the music they perform.

That’s a rare dual occupation these days, albeit an ultra-traditional one from Beethoven to Bernstein and beyond. Like Pierre Boulez before him, Salonen conducted out of necessity, insistent that the music of our time be liberated from the page in the face of varying degrees of inaction from his colleagues. In Salonen’s case, it was personal: he took to the podium to make sure his own music was played.

As with Boulez, conducting soon took over – prompted by an international debut in 1983 when the 25-year-old Finn took the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus through Mahler’s Third Symphony at a few days’ notice. Even more than his own works, it was the wider world of contemporary music new and not-so-new that benefitted as Salonen’s conducting career took off (again, as with Boulez).

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo: Annick Ramp

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo: Annick Ramp

A few days into his 17-year tenure as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Salonen was in an orchestra pit in Salzburg taking the orchestra through Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise (at the time, less than a decade old). Fifteen years later, The New Yorker’s critic Alex Ross wrote that ‘the Salonen era with the LA Phil may mark a turning point in the recent history of classical music in America.’ He was referring to the ensemble’s increased abilities, for sure. But more importantly, he was referring to Salonen’s insistence that the orchestra present more and more unusual music to more and more curious audiences – and to the still- flourishing legacy such determination would spawn.

For ‘beyond’, we might well read London, Stockholm, Helsinki, New York or any number of towns. Hand-in-hand with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London and the Apple Corporation in California, Salonen has been a vital exponent of digital technologies and an ambassador for their application in educational and creative contexts. As the pivotal musician behind the RE-RITE project, Salonen and his collaborators hit upon a rampantly imaginative unlocking of the mysterious alchemy of orchestral performance and musical construction that combined immersive excitement with a total avoidance of the patronising or the esoteric – truly a new frontier in the dissemination of complex art music.

As a resident artist at the New York Philharmonic and the Finnish National Opera, Salonen has more and more time for personal creativity in the purest sense. But as he opens Nordic Music Days this year with more music by people other than himself and with a Philharmonia Orchestra that he now calls his own, we are reminded how bereft of international attention so much Nordic music would remain without him. Saariaho, Lindberg, Hillborg and more have benefitted from Salonen’s exacting technique as he introduced their works to Paris, New York, Los Angeles and more.

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo: Minna Hatinen

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo: Minna Hatinen

And so to London, where Salonen offers audiences outside Iceland a rare chance to hear works by Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Daníel Bjarnason – two of Europe’s most individual, resonant and self-disciplined young composers who just happen to both hail from Iceland. In the former composer’s Aeriality we hear the creaking and grinding of tectonic plates, which as well as speaking of that country’s geology reminds us that the best music pours forth when creative orthodoxies are in flux. Daníel Bjarnason’s Violin Concerto also pulls the rug out from under anyone’s expectations of what a violin concerto might sound like, as the instrument’s bottom string is tuned not to G but to D.

Nordic Music Days have always been about new methods and new voices, but there are deeper opportunities embedded in Salonen’s opening concert. In his speech at the Thornton School, he hailed a new age of compositional freedom with a series of rigorous challenges to the assembled students. With freedom has come responsibility, he suggested: now that we have shunned the ‘blind adherence to principle’ of the post-war avant-garde, composers must know their craft more than ever. That craft may pop up in unlikely guises. Listen hard to the objective, organic beauty of Sibelius’s last two symphonies, spliced between Thorvaldsdottir and Bjarnason in the Philharmonia’s concert, and you may just notice the seeds that grew into 1970s Musique spectrale.

But even more important than listening to others, is listening with well-founded confidence to one’s self. ‘If there is a magic potion for musical longevity, its recipe must be frustratingly complicated’, Salonen the composer admitted in his LA speech. But the urge to fight chaos with aesthetics is a good place to start.

Andrew Mellor, 2017