Classical maverick tackles pop music

by Ben Woodward

“In about 20 years, we will rarely hear Brahms in the concert hall; we will mostly hear contemporary music.” A bold prediction, particularly as dwindling audiences for classical music have most orchestras keeping to the tried and true, with only the occasional token nod to the obscure or challenging, or anything composed within the last 50 years — both often deemed box-office poison.

But these are the words of Finnish composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1992, under whose maverick baton the orchestra has soared to become one of America’s premier music ensembles, and who has daringly bucked the prevailing conservatism and focused on contemporary music.

The results have defied expectation. Concerts featured the music of early 20th-century masters Ravel, Debussy, Bartok, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, as well as more contemporary fare in the form of Lutoslawski, Ligeti, Stockhausen, Berio, Carter, Adams, Ades and Saariho. Subscription rates have risen, and the orchestra began drawing younger crowds, curious about the adventurous programming — a quiet revolution in the orchestra’s home at Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall.

“I don’t see myself as a revolutionary person in any way,” says a slightly bemused Salonen. “I think it’s a perfectly normal approach to the idea of what classical music should be doing. What is astonishing is that it’s not being done more elsewhere.”

What sets the 50-year-old Finn apart from many other advocates of modern music is that he isn’t challenging for the sake of challenging, or being aggressively confrontational. He says he is more interested in showing audiences that contemporary music is “valid.”

“I have performed music that I really believe in,” he explains, “and I am operating under the assumption that I am not vastly different from other people. So if there is music that excites me, or moves me, or thrills me, I have a good reason to believe that it would have the same effect on others. That has been the programming principle. It’s not ideologically based; more pleasure-based.”

And L.A. audiences have been lapping it up. Not only do they accept the presence of contemporary music in their orchestral concerts, but they even expect it, with the orchestra’s Green Umbrella concert series, devoted solely to music of recent years, their fastest-growing series.

In many respects, Salonen has mellowed since his young composing days in Finland, where he staunchly pursued an avant-garde agenda with fellow Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, among others, in his Ears Open concerts, and had little time for the opinion of audiences or indeed whether anyone turned up at all.

A gradual sea change seems to have come as his fame grew as a conductor, a career that he was initially unwilling to pursue. After a famous performance of Mahler’s vast and complex “Symphony No. 3,” where Salonen stepped in as a last-minute substitute for an indisposed Michael Tilson Thomas, doors began to open, eventually leading to his musical directorship in Los Angeles.

“Contemporary music is not as institutionalized as it is in Europe, where new music is a certain kind of thing,” he says, and the move across the Atlantic seems to have both broadened and relaxed his own views.

It’s a shift that came to be reflected in his own compositions, such as the raucous “L.A. Variations,” “Foreign Bodies” and “Wing on Wing.” These combine the avant garde with the accessible into an often viscerally thrilling whole, far from the esoteric, alienating academic writing that many associate with postwar classical music.

For Salonen, boundaries are there to be blurred, in such as a way as to render them obsolete. He aims for performances that “defy people’s pigeonholing instincts,” blending different media and musical genres, while taking pride in his eclecticism. “The fun starts when I can mix and match.”

Having once taken a dismissive attitude toward pop and rock music, his views altered as he became more aware of similarities between contemporary classically trained avant-garde composers and certain pop musicians working now.

“The obvious one is Bjork,” he elaborates. “Bands like Radiohead, the way they have liberated themselves from the pop-song format is interesting. The boundaries are growing more porous; the way lots of kids work now, using the same technology and working in a similar composing environment.”

Technology further breaks down traditional musical borders in the way we listen, too, Salonen adds, further breaking down the traditional musical borders. He admits surprise at the sheer amount of classical music downloaded from the Internet — an exciting prospect in his eyes; he was a proponent in making recordings of L.A. Philharmonic concerts available on iTunes.

“The great thing about the iPod generation is that you’re not limited to one kind of music,” he says. “I like the idea of everything being available; I like the idea that the big record companies are losing power, because it’s technologically very simple to put things out. So much new-music exchange happens outside the commercial channels. New bands and young composers put up their stuff, and it’s a grapevine kind of thing that works there. It will be very interesting to see where it will go over the next five years.”

Interesting, too, will be seeing where the coming years will take Salonen, as he winds down his directorship with the L.A. Philharmonic and prepares to move to London, where he will be artistic director of the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Does he believe he will be make similar changes there as he did in Los Angeles?

“London is a very different sort of animal,” he muses. “There are five orchestras in London, or more, depending on how you count. The role of the orchestra is more clearly defined, because one orchestra cannot have the same leading role in the European system as an American orchestra almost inevitably has in its own city.”

But he remains committed to the idea that more contemporary repertoire is the way to remain connected with today’s audiences, and if that doesn’t immediately mean throwing the likes of Brahms and Beethoven out the window, he remains optimistic that he can initiate some changes.

“I am interested in creating context as well as conducting concerts,” he says. “I like activating other artists and people from other disciplines. I’m trying to create a framework within which the music we play would explain itself in a different way. That’s the approach that interests me, and I’m going to try to do it in London.”

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Oct. 21-22 at Suntory Hall in Akasaka, Tokyo (7 p.m.; ¥9,000-24,000; [03] 3584-9999)