Academy Pays Tribute To Esa-Pekka Salonen
Disney Hall may be the most recent and most striking addition to the cultural landscape of Los Angeles, but more than 20 years ago that same landscape was powerfully transformed by an equally formidable, though somewhat smaller addition: conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen.
The Finnish-born Salonen began conducting with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1984, has conducted with the orchestra every season since, and recently began his 13th season as the Philharmonic's Music Director. On Thursday afternoon, at the appropriately elegant Millennium Biltmore Hotel downtown, Salonen was honored with a President's Merit Award at the Recording Academy's 9th Annual GRAMMY Salute To Classical Music.
The day of honor for Salonen was a chance not just to reflect on his past musical accomplishments, but future ones as well - on Tuesday Salonen had announced that he would extend his contract with the Philharmonic through the 2007-8 season. Mention of that news by Master of Ceremonies Richard Kaufman brought rousing applause from a room packed with classical heavyweights, including a dozen GRAMMY classical music nominees and longtime Philharmonic general manager and honorary Life Director Ernest Fleischmann (the man who originally brought Salonen to Los Angeles).
Salonen has achieved remarkable success on both sides of a dual career. As a composer, he has been recognized with numerous international awards, and his musically adventurous works include "LA Variations," "Five Images After Sappho," "Giro," "Gambit," and "Mania." Last season he had the opportunity to lead the Philharmonic in giving his latest work, "Wing On Wing," its world premiere at Disney Hall.
As a conductor, Salonen has been a primary force in keeping the Philharmonic vital. The maestro has been a fierce advocate for new music, premiering works by such esteemed composers as John Adams, Franco Donatoni, William Kraft, Magnus Lindberg, and Tan Dun. He has toured extensively with the Philharmonic, establishing residencies at both the Salzburg Festival and the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, and he has led acclaimed festivals of music by Ligeti, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Berlioz. He has also served as the Music Director of the Ojai Music Festival.
The event was designed to honor all that music-making on Salonen's part, but the maestro didn't quite get his money's worth out of the afternoon - his work duties leading a Philharmonic rehearsal caused him to miss most of a luncheon that was served. But the maestro and his wife were present as Kaufman - a GRAMMY-winning conductor in his own right - kicked off the tribute by reading a pair of letters that had been written for the occasion.
The first, from the president of Helsinki's Sibelius Academy, recalled Salonen as a driven student whose boyish demeanor belied a steely determination to challenge convention. The letter also pointed to strong evidence of Salonen's generosity of spirit and dedication to music education: When the maestro won Finland's prestigious Suomi Prize in 2001, he spent the prize money by commissioning three new orchestral pieces from young Finnish composers. Kaufman also read some personal congratulations sent by Los Angeles mayor, James Hahn.
Kaufman turned the podium over to Recording Academy President Neil Portnow, who pointed out that while conductors had been honored at past Salutes, the honor had never been bestowed upon a composer. With the tribute to Salonen, the Academy had a chance to honor both at once. Portnow also recalled Salonen's rather precarious jump from composing to big-time conducting: In 1983, when Michael Tilson Thomas was forced to bow out of maestro duties at a London Symphony concert, 25-year-old Salonen stepped in to expertly baton his way through Mahler's 3rd - a six movement, 90-minute monster of a work that Salonen had not previously studied. His success under fire that night firmly established him as a major composer/conductor, rather than a composer who could conduct.
When Salonen himself stepped to the podium, his remarks were brief but heartfelt. "These are bewildering days for classical musicians," he said. "There is the sneaking suspicion that classical music has become part of the fringe - that it has moved away from the center of the everyday life experience. My conclusion is that the music is not the problem - the problem is simply with presentation and availability. From what I've experienced at Disney Hall, I can say that classical music is alive and well more so now than ever in the city of Los Angeles. And while the music business is changing, and the formats for music are changing faster and faster, the fact is that music itself will live forever."
That point was doubly emphasized by a pair of featured musical performances. The Davidson Fine Arts School Select Vocal Ensemble from Augusta, Ga., delivered a program of beautifully sung works by Praetorius and Rossini, and displayed some notable lip, tongue, and epiglottal control with a vocal arrangement of the famously frenetic "Flight Of The Bumblebee." The Young Musicians Foundation Chamber Ensemble, conducted by Abel Delgado, performed the Introduction, Valse, and Finale from Ibert's "Divertissement," a selection that had the youthful players expertly shifting from the lilting melodiousness of a Bach-like waltz to the zip and zing of a Looney Tunes-esque free-for-all.