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Esa-Pekka, the farewell tour

April 10, 2009 | 10:57 am

Salonen

Who says classical music fans can't express their love for a star just as passionately as tweeners at a Jonas Brothers concert?

Sure, they may not scream or Twitter in his presence -- some of them need canes to get around, after all -- but their devotion is no less ardent or extreme for being more subtly channeled.

Last night, fans of Esa-Pekka Salonen crowded into the café at Walt Disney Concert Hall for perhaps their last up-close glimpse of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's music director before he leaves his post with the orchestra. The event was a signing of his latest CD release, a collaboration with pianist Yefim Bronfman featuring Salonen's Piano Concerto, "Helix" and "Dichotomie."

"He will only sign CDs! He will not sign your programs or your scores or anything else!" barked one Disney Hall employee.

But this night, Salonen was only too happy to break the rules. "All right I'm ready," said the conductor-composer, wielding his felt tip pen like a lightning bolt and flashing his eternally boyish grin. Taking a look at the line snaking all the way across the café, he turned to one of two bodyguards and said, "This is going to take awhile."

The Finnish conductor signed CDs, programs and books. He thanked one fan in Japanese, another in Swedish and posed for a few cellphone camera photos. One fan asked him to inscribe a book with the first few bars of his Violin Concerto -- a new piece that Salonen conducted earlier that evening -- and the maestro obliged without batting an eye.

Eps Salonen has signed discs at Disney Hall before but Thursday's overflowing crowd -- close to 120 fans by one count -- was in an especially emotional state of mind. With only a few weeks remaining in Salonen's tenure as music director, they bombarded him with heartfelt thank-yous and gushing expressions of admiration.

"I started coming to the Phil the same year you started here!" said Arlette Towner of La Crescenta, who got autographs for herself and for her son and daughter-in-law.

"I never quite got Sibelius' Fourth Symphony until you conducted it last year," said Yavar Moradi, an L.A. Philharmonic employee who waited in line like everyone else for his turn to chat with the conductor.

"We're going to miss you when you leave L.A. Are you going to come back to visit?" asked another fan.

"Yes that's the plan," replied Salonen, taking a swig from a bottle of Heineken.

One fan presented him with a torn copy of the CD booklet. "Some people have that reaction to it. I can take it," he said before scrawling his initials.

Even those who work closely with the conductor couldn’t resist a few words of adulation. Earlier in the evening, Steven Stucky, the orchestra's composer in residence, hosted an interview with the conductor during the pre-performance Upbeat Live lecture.

"This being Passover I thought I would leave a chair for Elijah," Stucky told the audience. "And here’s Elijah himself," he said when Salonen finally entered the hall.

Still somewhat reserved even after 17 years in L.A., Salonen kept the nostalgia to a minimum that night. During the lecture, he spoke mostly about music and offered some typically wry anecdotes about his relationship with composer György Ligeti: "We had good days and bad days. We fought a lot. We called each other names." 

The conductor didn't address the audience during the concert, which included performances of Ligeti's "Clocks and Clouds" and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

Whatever emotions Salonen might be currently feeling, he seems to have expressed them in his program notes for his Violin Concerto. "The violin is pushed to its very limits physically. Something very Californian in all this," he wrote. "Hooray for freedom of expression. And thank you, guys!"

Fandom, of course, is a far less restrained business and audience members could be heard commenting on every aspect of Salonen throughout the evening, from his appearance to his style on the podium.

"Oh my, look at his gray hair," whispered one audience member. (It was in fact the reflection of the house lights on his still chestnut-colored coif.)

"I think he's incredible. He looks so precise when he's conducting," said Diane Astourian of  Los Angeles, who attended the concert with a friend.

For those who still wish to bid farewell to Salonen but who couldn't make Thursday's signing, fear not. The Philharmonic has put out guest books at the entrances to Disney Hall so that well-wishers can leave adieus for posterity.

Matthew Lucas, 7, of Redondo Beach wrote: "Thank you for staying such a long time. I hope you come back."

Others were less reverential but no less admiring in their written messages. "Please say hello to Santa Claus when you get home," said one anonymous fan to the Finn.

"Peace out, Pekka," wrote another.

-- David Ng

Come back to Culture Monster later today for Mark Swed's review of last night's concert.

Photos: Esa-Pekka Salonen at last night's book signing and posing for a photo with Diane Astourian. Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu/For The Times.

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