LA Philharmonic conductor Salonen prepares to step down

Esa-Pekka Salonen puts down the baton this Sunday as lead conductor and music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez conducted an exit interview and listened in on one of Salonen's final Disney Hall concerts for this report.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Packing boxes in his Disney Hall office suite contain 17 years of Salonen's memories. He says he's still amazed that the board of the L.A. Philharmonic once offered all this to him, a little-known Finnish composer who wasn't yet 30 years old.

Esa Pekka Salonen: They offered me maybe the most prestigious cultural institution in the city and said, "Here we are, we're going to support you, and just take us somewhere."

Guzman-Lopez: Salonen's helped to take L.A. Phil from a good orchestra to, arguably, the top symphony in the nation – especially adept at interpreting the work of 20th century composers. He's particularly proud to have helped Los Angeles rally to build Disney Hall, a fitting new home for the 90-year-old orchestra.

Salonen: It somehow showed what music can do in a city and what the city can do for music when there's enough enthusiasm, dedication, and support, and how the entire culture can take a leap forward when enough people get together.

Guzman-Lopez: During his time in the city, this outsider appears to have become a relaxed L.A. insider. He found out how natural phenomena – earthquakes – and man-made ones – riots and traffic – can coalesce audiences as effectively as the capital campaign for his beloved concert hall.

Salonen: I got here like half an hour late. And as I walk in I say something like, "Sorry, the 10 was a mess." And people start applauding, because that was another moment where we felt like, no matter you do, no matter what your position, you are being punished by the gods of the traffic.

Guzman-Lopez: Salonen says he hesitates to think about his departure because the feelings begin to overwhelm him – and because he has plenty of administrative work, rehearsing, and conducting left to do.

[Concertmaster tuning up]

Guzman-Lopez: Through his selections of the classics, new commissioned works, and his own compositions each season, Salonen says he's sought to take audiences on a musical ride that's been physical, spiritual, occasionally dark, and fun.

[Applause for Salonen]

Guzman-Lopez: For this season's final Disney Hall performances he's conducting "Symphony of Psalms" and "Oedipus Rex," two works by one of the gods of the avant garde, Igor Stravinsky.

Vocalist (narrating): Use your eyes, look around, the city is dying, young men rotting in the streets.

Guzman-Lopez: "Oedipus Rex" reunites Salonen with iconoclastic director Peter Sellars, a frequent collaborator. The piece requires six vocal soloists, a chorus of dozens of men and women, and 88 members of L.A. Philharmonic.

[Music]

Salonen: The most beautiful thing about music, and abstract music, as it is, is that we don't spell out the kind of experience people should be having.

Guzman-Lopez: George Walker of Silverlake has been coming to the L.A. Phil for more than a quarter-century. "Oedipus Rex" embodies everything he likes about Salonen's artistic choices.

George Walker: This is just a magnificent work, very powerful, something that we don't get in Los Angeles very often.

Guzman-Lopez: South Bay orchestra patron Gloria Shack says Salonen's been a great ambassador for his musical passions.

Gloria Shack: What I remember him most for is that he brought us Sibelius, and I had never heard Sibelius before and I loved it, the way he conducted it. He did many things. I remember the first concert, he was so young. (laughs)

Guzman-Lopez: Salonen's eagerness to expand audience tastes has provoked music appreciation teacher Joellen Keene.

Joellen Keene: Especially in the last couple of years, he's really gone out there on a limb and done tremendous quantities of very avant-garde music and Shostakovich and dark Eastern European music. With little sprinklings of Mozart and Brahms. And I'm looking forward to, maybe Dudamel will do more of the classics.

Guzman-Lopez: Incoming L.A. Phil music director Gustavo Dudamel will likely make different decisions than Esa Pekka Salonen. But both compel the orchestra to mirror life's complexities.

The outgoing maestro – the father of two teenagers – feels strongly that orchestral music can counter the cultural trend toward truncating human emotions and experiences to the 140 characters in a Twitter message.

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