Composing in the midst of uncertainty – an interview with Esa-Pekka Salonen

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”This must have been the first time since the seventies or early eighties that I’ve stayed this long in Finland – a new experience for me”, the composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen ponders on a radiant summer afternoon in Porvoo, Finland. 

We meet over coffee at the Art Factory, the summer home of Avanti! Chamber Orchestra, co-founded by Salonen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Olli Pohjola in 1983. Each June, Avanti! hosts the Summer Sounds festival, focusing on contemporary music, with concerts  deployed all over the picturesque Old Town of Porvoo.  

Though there was no full-scale festival this summer, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Avanti! was able to carry out one-day mini-festival, with careful attention to the safety of the musicians and limited live audiences alike. Salonen joined the orchestra to conduct the main event, an evening-length concert featuring an all-Finnish programme, including his latest piece, FOG (2019) for thirteen musicians.

For Salonen, the concert was the fist one since the concert halls were closed over three months ago. His last concert before lockdown was the epic recreation of Beethoven’s 1808 ’Akademie’ concert with the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 15 March. Lasting over four hours, the concert featured Beethoven’s Fifth (1804-08) and Sixth Symphonies (1807-08), the Fourth Piano Concerto (1805-06), movements from the Mass in C major (1807) as well as the Choral Fantasy (1808). 

”That was the end of it. Although the message from UK government was totally unclear at that point. We were supposed to play another concert on the following Thursday with Lise Davidsen, featuring a selection of Mahler songs alongside Schumann Third Symphony.”   

Salonen recalls contacting the Philharmonia CEO on the following Monday, saying ’you do know that the Europe has been practically shut down’. But without clear guidelines from the government, none of the London orchestras wanted to be the first one to close down.  

”Then I left for a walk alongside the riverbank and went to a pub for a pint. There I saw Boris Johnson on the big screen telling people that public gatherings are not recommended. I still don’t know if that was a strict ban or only a recommendation, but be that as it may, the message was quite clear.  

It just felt so grotesque being there on the counter with thirty people, and thinking, like, goddammit. Then I phoned over to the Philharmonia and said that I thought it is quite clear what we should do. We were supposed to embark on a tour, with six Mahler Ninths in a row, but all that was suddenly gone.” 

Since then, Salonen has stayed in his native Finland, residing at his summer home in the rural Uusimaa, east of Helsinki. Originally he was to stay in Finland for April and May only, conducting Die Walküre at the Finnish National Opera, as a part of the new production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, augured with Das Rheingold back in August 2019. 

The FNO Die Walküre was originally postponed to August, but as the COVID-19 situation evolved, the production was eventually rescheduled to January 2021, with Susanna Mälkki replacing Salonen in the pit. 

With Die Walküre gone, the Finnish National Opera will be opening its new season with Covid fan tutte, a timely reinterpretation of Mozart ’s Così fan tutte (1789-90). With a new libretto by Minna Lindgren, combining elements of political satire and reality shows, and Salonen in the pit, Covid fan tutte will be the first opera production staged in Finland since the mid-March closure. 

In addition, Laila (2018-19), a new, interactive work co-created by Salonen, Paula Vesala, Tuomas Norvio and the Ekho Collective, will be premiered at the FNO on 20-29 August. Scored for voices and percussion, with the music and visual elements evolving in interaction with the audience, Laila is a production of the Opera Beyond ecosystem, created in collaboration with Nokia Bell Labs. 

While Finland is heading for a careful reopening, the situation in the UK does not appear equally promising. As the Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the London-based Philharmonia Orchestra since 2008, Salonen is deeply concerned for the UK arts organizations.    

”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 US, with the musicians and institutions agreeing on a temporary pay cut. In London it has come down to zero, which is quite hard, especially musicians with families.”

With all live concerts to the beginning August cancelled, the Philharmonia is facing significant uncertainty, alongside the whole performing arts scene in the UK. In his video message on 9 April, Salonen stressed the fundamental role of music in coping with a crisis.

”Music can help at a time like this – individually, to find a sense of perspective, and collectively, to connect with one another. Orchestras are uniquely able to make this happen.”

Salonen and Philharmonia Gurrelieder

Adjusting to the sudden transition from a busy, thoroughly planned concert schedule to social distancing has took its time for Salonen.   

”It is a complex situation. First I thought that I’ve been given, from above, a period for composing and doing all those thing’s 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 everyone 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 not 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 writes in the program note. 

During the composition process of Pollux, Salonen realized that his material seemed to want to grow in two completely opposite directions. Ha came to a conclusion that these very different musical identities, referred as brothers in the composer’s sketches, would not fit into one cohesive formal unit, a single piece. 

”They simply couldn’t coexist. This made me think of the myth of the non-identical twins Castor and Pollux who share half of their DNA, but have some extreme phenotype differences, and experience dramatically different fates. My solution was to write two independent but genetically linked orchestral works. Pollux, slow and quite dark in expression, is the first of them. Castor (2019) is mostly hyperactive, noisy and extroverted”, the composer writes. 

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Salonen’s most recent piece, FOG was composed for Frank Gehry’s 90th birthday last year. The main musical source for the fifteen-minute fantasy for thirteen instruments is the prelude from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E major for solo violin, BWV 1006 (1720), the first piece of music Salonen and Gehry Heard in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, while it was still under construction. 

In addition to the Bach prelude, the harmonic sphere of FOG is mostly based on a F A G E H (or B natural) scheme, derived from Gehry’s name. In Porvoo, Salonen conducted the first public performance of FOG. 

”I was setting out to write a version for large orchestra too, to be performed as a part of my residency with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington ahead this fall. As the performances are now cancelled, I’ve put it off, for now.”

Instead, during the lockdown months, Salonen has begun sketching a song-cycle for Julia Bullock.  

”My initial idea was to compose a cycle for soprano and a large orchestra, but then I got thinking, when it will be possible for a large orchestra to come together again to perform the music. Therefore I’ve been pondering, if it should be a hybrid instead. Something which could be performed by smaller forces as well as a full orchestra, or even in a completely virtual setting.”

Originally, Salonen was to launch his tenure as the Music Director of San Francisco Symphony on 30 September this fall, with intriguingly programmed Inaugural Weeks concert series. Like many other performing organizations in the US, the SFSO has subsequently cancelled all concerts through the end of December. 

”There has been a massive earthquake throughout the whole infrastructure of classical music. Everything has suddenly evaporated. Especially in the US, there is no idea when it will be possible to reopen, because the situation is out of control. Unlike in Europe, as we have seen here in Porvoo. Here, we’ve been able to take the first careful steps towards live music again. But in the US the curve looks vastly different from Europe.”

According to Salonen, in the end, the future of the performing arts organizations in the US comes down to how long the lockdown is to last.     

”The wealthiest organizations will endure it for a while longer. But if we take a look at, for example, the LA Phil, one of the most solid and wealthiest organizations out there, they got an 80-million dollar hole into their budget for cancelling the Hollywood Bowl, which is their moneymaker for financing the winter season. I’m sure that they can cope with it for a year, but if they are forced to cancel it again, it will be lights out for them.” 

In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic itself, further problems arise from the indifferent attitude of the federal government.  

”We are dealing with a federal government with zero interest in what will happen to the arts and culture. They are not even interested in science. So there will be no support coming form the federal state.    

Of course, classical music and arts organizations do have their loyal supporters and patrons. But if this comes down to a point, where the whole social infrastructure will collapse, with those twenty million people unemployed and most of them bereft of their health insurance, there will be many new addresses for potential charity.  

Our only hope is that Donald Trump will lose the election in November and we’ll get a better administration. But even if that happens, saving the cultural life will not be their top priority either. So we are dealing with an extremely difficult situation.”

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Even after the pandemic is extinguished, the whole crisis will not be over. Instead, the repercussions of the lockdown period will take their toll over an extended period of time.  

”We don’t really know what the psychology behind all this will be. Once we are finally able to reopen the concert halls and opera houses, will people come? By now, we’ve used to staying at home. More people are watching Netflix than ever. So we can’t take anything for granted. There are lots of loose ends here. 

Everybody is shocked how fragile a system this really is. And how unprepared we were for this, on every level of the society.” 

In the midst of all the uncertainty, there has been a positive side within the lockdown period as well.

”I’ve been happy to be able to enjoy the Finnish spring at the countryside, from the mid-March all the way to the Midsummer. That has been truly wonderful.” 

© Jari Kallio

Photos © Veikko Kähkönen, Jari Kallio, Craig Mathew & Brandon Patoc

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