Esa-Pekka Salonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen in 21st-century San Francisco | Credit: Andrew Eccles

San Francisco Symphony Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen has a new gig: He has been named resident composer of the Berlin Philharmonic. He continues to hold conducting titles at both the Philharmonia Orchestra in London and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and to teach at the Colburn School in L.A.

“If there is one dogma in Esa-Pekka Salonen’s understanding of music,” says the Berlin announcement, “it is the rejection of all dogmas. He doesn’t allow himself to be pigeonholed but searches for music that excites and moves the listener — how he gets there is secondary.”

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen on the podium

The Philharmonic recalls that one of Salonen’s main preoccupations in his youth was “defending the true values of music — if a hit by Donna Summer was played at a student party, he might sit down at the piano with a friend, and they would counter it with 12-tone music for four hands.

“Now, Salonen can only laugh about such episodes, and no longer sees pop music and 12-tone music as mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary.” (In San Francisco, Salonen is championing programs old and new, mixing world and American premieres, commissions, and rarely performed large compositions with audience favorites.)

The Berlin concerts this season will include a wide range of Salonen’s music, from his most recent chamber piece, Saltat sobrius: Fantasy Upon Sederunt Principes (Jan. 21, 2023), and the German premiere of the Organ Concerto (Jan. 19–21, 2023) to the Dada-inspired Karawane (May 18–20, 2023). Other performances in Berlin include Helix (Dec. 21–22) and Catch and Release (March 17, 2023).

There is also a partial roundup of Salonen’s composing/conducting engagements on Lisa Hirsch’s classical music blog, Iron Tongue of Midnight. Alex Ross wrote a long-lived article about Salonen’s recordings in The New Yorker. And more recently, SF Classical Voice’s own Richard S. Ginell contributed an essential list of Salonen’s musical achievements.

While Salonen’s San Francisco leadership is still relatively recent, his fame as a composer goes back a long time in Los Angeles and Europe and well over a decade with the SF Symphony, where several of his works, especially the Violin Concerto, received such acclaim as “one of the most appealing, interesting, substantial works of recent years. It is also one of the few valid and valuable creations where the dominance of sound over conventional aspects of concert music is not a bug, it’s a feature.”

And with Salonen now in charge of SF Symphony programming, it speaks of his unassuming nature that in the coming season there is only one of his works scheduled, Nyx, March 1–2, 2023 (on concerts advertised as “Yuja Wang Plays Rachmaninoff”). Nyx will also be performed on tour in Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie on March 15, 2023.

Salonen has been concerned about the problems of musicians during the pandemic, quoted in Jari Kallio’s Adventures in Music: “London orchestras, apart from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, are in serious trouble. They have no safety net of any kind. The musicians don’t have fixed, monthly salaries, they are only being paid per service. And now their income has dropped to zero. So it is not about being laid off for three weeks or having a pay cut, as they have done in the U.S., with the musicians and institutions agreeing on a temporary pay cut. In London it has come down to zero, which is quite hard, especially on musicians with families.”

Posters of Salonen
Posters of Salonen in Hans Scharoun’s “Circus Karajani,” the orchestra’s home, Philharmonie Berlin

Two years ago, the situation was grim: “There has been a massive earthquake throughout the whole infrastructure of classical music. Everything has suddenly evaporated. Especially in the U.S., there is no idea when it will be possible to reopen, because the situation is out of control.

“It is a complex situation. First, I thought that I’ve been given, from above, a period for composing and doing all those things I’ve been unable to do over the past decades. But it turned out to be a bit different.

“Many of my colleagues and friends have shared this experience of finding it difficult to concentrate, partly because there’s no fixed ending for this period. In addition, each and every one of us has been spending a large part of their time online, listening to the news and contacting the people they have not been able to keep in touch.

“So the process of composing has taken its time to get going. Only recently I’ve been entering into the mood of really getting a firm grasp on the task.”

For Salonen, composing is not an isolated activity but an ongoing process with no strict formula.

“I don’t just sit down and decide to write something. Instead, I keep collecting material all the time, even when I am not ‘officially’ composing. In this way, I’ve got something to get started with when the actual period of composing begins. It is essential that everything needs not be invented there and then, because that’s precisely where the panic starts to creep in.”

Sometimes, useful material can be found in surprising places. According to Salonen, his 2018 orchestral piece Pollux is based on a mantra rhythm the composer heard during dinner in a restaurant in the 11th arrondissement in Paris. A post-grunge band played on the background track, and Salonen wrote down the bass line on a paper napkin, not knowing exactly what it was and who the musicians were.

“I couldn’t get it out of my head and decided to use a heavily modified version of it in Pollux. The pattern has been distilled to pure rhythm and slowed down to less than quarter speed of the original,” Salonen wrote in the program note.

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