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An Interesting Chat With The Innovative Conductor and Composer Esa-Pekka Salonen

Minna Hatinen
Finnish conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen

Passionate about music since he was a child, Esa-Pekka Salonen— music director of the San Francisco Symphony, principal conductor and artistic advisor of London's Philharmonia Orchestra, and prolific, internationally acclaimed composer—finds personal meaning in the music of others, and discovers new insights into his own music when colleagues conduct it. 

On Sunday, August 15th at 1 PM on WRTI 90.1, and Monday, August 16th at 7 PM on WRTI HD-2, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra in a program that includes Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra, Bartok's Miraculous Mandolin, and Bartok's Viola Concerto with soloist, Choong-Jin Chang.

Esa-Pekka Salonen remembers how the door to classical music opened for him.

"It was Bruckner [4th Symphony]. I happened to hear it on the radio and I came in like halfway through the scherzo and I was completely mesmerized and fascinated by it. I listened to it until there was nothing left of it off the record."

And what ignited his drive to conduct?

"I remember THAT afternoon very well because I came home from school, my dad had bought his first real stereo system ... and I switched it on and it happened to be on a classical music channel and something unbelievable came out of the loud speakers and I didn't know what it was, but it was this completely other worldly and completely mesmerizing. And that was the Tourangalila Symphony by Messiaen.

As conductor and composer, Esa-Pekka Salonen continues a tradition of the past, and also looks to exciting new possibilities in the future. 

He was in town to conduct The Philadelphia Orchestra in Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra. Strauss, says Salonen, is a composer who "trusts the conductor."

And a lot of his music is 'made for hands,' if I can use that metaphor. When you start conducting Strauss, you really feel that it all comes out of this physical experience of conducting and playing.

Where once it was common for conductors to compose, Salonen is one of the few people today who are equally active in both activities.

"Yet he says finding the meaning of a piece is still a process, involving composer and performers. 

"I go and hear a concert of a piece of mind conducted by a colleague and sometimes I hear things that I didn't even know were there. And I always think, what we do as composers we create a framework and a system of symbols that allows people to express themselves within that framework. And that's why this kind of music is still so alive."

And when he conducts music of others?

"The best case scenario for me is that I study to a point where I can have an illusion that I wrote the piece myself. Illusion! But it's fun when it happens because then I feel very free." 

He's also excited about the future of the art form, and as incoming music director of the San Francisco Symphony in 2020, he has gathered a group of artistic advisers, including other composers and a robotics expert! 

Techonlogy is advancing rapidly he says. "I really think classical music should be at the forefront of using these new possibillites."

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.