The Pre-Show Q&A: Esa-Pekka Salonen

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Condutor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen is in Los Angeles to present two programs with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall—Beethoven and Hillborg this weekend, and Shostakovich’s Orango next. We ask him what makes L.A. audiences so special, if he is currently composing music, and about his curly-haired colleague, Gustavo Dudamel.   

You’ve been with the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1984, and that’s quite a run. How has your experience here compared to your experience with the other orchestras you have worked with over the years?
It’s very difficult to compare because of the length of time I was with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The frequency and intensity cannot really be duplicated. The feelings are so mutual, and we know each other so well. It makes for a special communication, mostly non-verbal. It’s as if they read my thoughts. Overall, the relationship is more intuitive in a way that can only be achieved with time.

While you were music director, the orchestra commissioned over 54 new works. Now your Esa-Pekka Salonen Commissions Fund supports the same. Do you find L.A. audiences to be especially receptive of new music?
The orchestra is one of the most forward-looking organizations in the world and that’s not possible without an audience that supports it and is proud of it. I think there’s a lot of civic pride in having a 21st century orchestra like the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

You are also, of course, a composer yourself. Are you writing any music now? 
This week, no. But yes, I’m in the very early stages of my next orchestral piece. 
 
Is it true that you considered purchasing Stravinsky’s home when it was up for sale? We’d love to hear that story.
Yes. My then personal assistant Jim Donahue had seen the home advertised and told me about it, mentioning that the address was quite familiar. It was a foreclosure and relatively inexpensive and I went to see it with my wife and some friends. There had been only one owner since Stravinsky and very little had changed. In fact, I could see the marks in the studio carpet left by Stravinsky’s piano. One of my friends told me to imagine writing one note in that room and I could. However, the house was not very suitable for a family so my wife and I decided against it. I still think about it though. I understand the eventual purchaser got tired of it being a tourist destination and allowed the hedges to hide it from sight. And I’ve heard that it has been torn down. It’s a shame to have that piece of music history lost. 
 
What can you tell us about the upcoming concerts? The second sounds like a bit of a mystery. 
The first features the world premiere of Anders Hillborg’s Sirens. He’s a Swedish composer and we’ve worked together quite a bit. The second is the world premiere of Shostakovich’s unfinished and previously unknown opera, Orango. Gerard McBurney, at the request of Shostakovich’s widow, did the orchestration of the prologue and we will have the first performance in Los Angeles on Dec. 2.

Are you looking forward to working with Peter Sellars? Why?
Yes. Peter is one of the most brilliant directors in the world. He’s inspiring, fun, profound, and a delight to work with. He’s also an old friend and we’ve worked with each other a lot, which makes for a simple, organic collaboration.

What are you most looking forward to enjoying when you are back in L.A.?
I’m very happy to see the orchestra, the people, Walt Disney Concert Hall. It’s going to be incredibly busy socially, there are so many people I’d love to see, but the core is being with the orchestra. They’ve been such a big part of my life and I think of them often.

 
What is something that no one else knows about your colleague, Gustavo Dudamel?
I wouldn’t tell something that no one else knows! I can tell you that I was there when he made his professional conducting debut. I was on the jury of the Gustav Mahler competition and I knew I was witnessing something extraordinary. I immediately called [president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association]  Deborah Borda to tell her about him and you know the rest.