December 2011

Q+LA Esa-Pekka Salonen

Helming the world premiere of a long-lost opera, the L.A. Philharmonic conductor laureate proves you can indeed go home again  by REED JOHNSON

Esa-Pekka SalonenILLUSTRATION: ANN FIELD

The trickiest time in some artists’ careers is when they transition from enfant terrible to éminence grise. Then there’s Esa-Pekka Salonen, former music director and longest-serving principal conductor in the history of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1992–2009). Of course, Salonen was never the bad-boy type. It was evident when he took over the Phil’s podium in his early thirties that the Helsinki native was already worldly, highly disciplined and intellectually mature, a witty conversationalist and lover of thick European novels. The only question was how his emotionally reserved Nordic demeanor would adapt to laid-back Southern California.

In fact, Salonen blossomed in the City of Angels. During his tenure, he earned the respect and affection of both orchestra and audience with his brilliant musicianship and risk-taking programming. He championed emerging talent, was a great advocate of contemporary classical music, helped lead the Phil’s move into Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003 and thrived as a composer. And by his own account, L.A. allowed Salonen to loosen up and live more fully and happily.

At 53, he retains the debonair good looks and creative enthusiasm of a younger man. Now principal conductor of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra and the L.A. Phil’s conductor laureate, he’s back at Disney Hall this month to conduct the orchestra in the world premiere of part of an unfinished and once long-lost comic opera, Orango, by Dmitri Shostakovich. Composed in the early 1930s, before the hopes of the infant Soviet Union were dashed by Stalinist oppression, Orango tells the bizarre story of the eponymous grotesque half-man, half-ape creature—a result of biological engineering—who grows up to become a sleazy journalist and corrupt bourgeois power broker. Eventually, Orango is undone by his crude simian nature. It seems all that remains of Orango, which was originally commissioned as a four-act opera by Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the October 1917 revolution, is the libretto and music for the prologue.

We recently spoke with Salonen about his artistic midlife and the challenges and rewards of Orango.

You’ve said one of the main tasks of performing Orango is trying to determine whether Shostakovich had soured on the Soviet Communist experiment when he wrote it.
I don’t think we can really know what he was thinking deep down. The more I spend time with this score, the more I read about the material and whatever else was going on around him, more and more I get the feeling that he still believed in the cause. He saw elements in the young Bolshevik state that were not sympathetic to his goals, and he realized that some of the commissions he had to write were of very low artistic quality and were crude tools of propaganda. But at the same time, I think he felt ultimately that what he was doing, together with his artist friends and colleagues, was creating new art for the new people of the new society. Better art, better people, better society. When I read this score, it becomes kind of a sad experience, because he realized he didn’t have many years left of this illusion of freedom. It was only a few years later when it became clear to him and everybody else what the reality was in the Soviet Union—what the Bolsheviks were really up to and what kind of state they had created.

What else was happening to Shostakovich at the time he wrote Orango?
At this point, he was still a young man and had been to the West already—to Berlin, [where] he experienced the delights of the Weimar Republic. Not only did he hear the music of Berlin, he saw the theater, art exhibitions. According to some reports he also ended up in a brothel with his pals. And he was kind of experiencing Western decadence for the first time. And if you are to experience Western decadence, then of course Weimar Republic Berlin is the best place for that. And so—and this is just my intuition—when he went back home, he was a somewhat different person. He realized there was so much out there that he wasn’t actually aware of. And now when I look at Orango, there are so many influences from the West—sort of a Kurt Weill type of cabaret-style music. On the other hand, there’s a lot of very old, traditional kind of Russian music as well.

What type of staging have you and director Peter Sellars devised?
This piece is [nearly] impossible to stage, as the set would have to be the Great Soviet Palace, which was meant to be almost a kilometer high. I haven’t spoken to Peter for a while, so I’m not absolutely certain what he’s planning. But it’s not going to be realistic in any way at all—there will be some surprises of how the crowd in the opera interacts with the crowd in the hall.

There’s a great detective story behind this opera. It was thought to be lost, but a Russian musicologist working for Shostakovich’s widow, Irina, unearthed it from a Moscow archive in 2004. Madam Shostakovich then asked your friend, British composer Gerard McBurney, to orchestrate a score out of the surviving piano sketches. And then you helped the L.A. Phil secure the world-premiere rights.
It’s a series of coincidences and good luck and being in the right place at the right time. I just called [L.A. Philharmonic president and CEO] Deborah Borda straight away, and she said, “Yes, absolutely we should do this.” At that point, I was no longer in any position of power at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and I was suggesting this as a sort of traveling salesman. So I was very pleased that everybody at the Philharmonic seemed in favor of doing it. It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve done for a long time. I’m really very tickled.

What’s it like to be conducting a piece that’s both old and, in a sense, brand new?
It’s a really special feeling. Because if you’re conducting a world premiere of a new piece, obviously one challenge is that nobody has ever heard it. We don’t have any kind of performance tradition, we don’t have any kind of accumulated knowledge as to how it goes, and we don’t have any proven solutions. On the positive side, there is no tradition that would put you in a straitjacket. I’m trying to imagine how Orango was in the mind of Mr. Shostakovich himself.

You recently sold your Brentwood home, and you and your family now live in London. Will you visit L.A. regularly?
Yes, the idea is that I would come back every year, and we have already made plans for several years into the future. So I’m very happy about maintaining this kind of contact with not only the orchestra but L.A. as a place—seeing my friends and all that. We’re planning to keep some kind of a dwelling in L.A.—most likely an apartment—to keep the option open to come and visit and see the sun from time to time. I brought up my family in L.A., and two of my three kids were born here. And when I speak to them, regardless of what their various passports say, their identity is very much Southern California. If you would wake them up in the middle of the night and ask where home is, they would say L.A. I don’t feel at all that I have cut off my ties with the city or the people. I’m calling and Skype-ing, and I read the Times on the Web quite frequently.

Your successor at the L.A. Phil, Gustavo Dudamel, says he gets all the exercise he needs just by conducting. How do you stay in shape to handle the professional rigors?
Twenty-some years ago, I would have given the same answer as Gustavo. [Laughs.] But as we all realize, later in life there’s a moment when the uphill battle becomes so steep you have to kind of do something in order to be able to do what you want to do. So, I exercise when I can, and I watch what I eat and drink. What I find shocking is how much sleep I need, as opposed to what I needed 20 years ago. It’s really a new thing that if I don’t get a decent night’s sleep I’m kind of useless.

When we spoke earlier this year, you said one of the good things about growing older was knowing what brings true satisfaction and therefore how to direct your time. Have you discovered other things?
I’m not finding this getting-older process particularly disturbing. I’m lucky with my health. It’s still robust, and I’m still able to learn new things. I think that’s the key. For a young person, you’re just like a sponge, sucking in everything. As you get older, it’s not only that the capacity diminishes, it’s that it’s easy to lose your curiosity, because you think, Okay, I’ve seen most things, and there’s nothing new under the sun, and things were better in the past anyway, and I don’t understand what the new generation is doing, and I don’t Tweet and I don’t use Facebook. It’s easy to get into a hedgehog type of defense position. More and more, I see the value of learning new things. I have a few plans about things nonmusical I would like to learn—a couple languages I haven’t been able to speak properly. And there’s one skill I never quite acquired, but now I don’t need it anymore—and that’s driving. Of all things in L.A., this is the one I hated the most. Back in Europe I don’t have a car anymore. I take the Tube, and I take buses, and I’m very happy about that.

What’s playing on your iPod these days?
I had a bunch of Turkish—Anatolian—folk music a friend of mine sent. I’ve been listening to that quite a bit. I just recorded my new orchestra piece, and I’ve been listening to the takes on my iPod. So it’s sort of half professional, half pleasure.

REED JOHNSON is a Los Angeles Times arts and culture reporter.