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Making room for the new guy: Salonen on Dudamel

October 23, 2009 | 10:40 am
 Salonen Dudamel

As he was the leader of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 17 years, there are some who probably expected former music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, 51 -- also composer of  "L.A. Variations" and "Wing on Wing," which had their world premieres with the Philharmonic   -- to be sitting front and center when his successor, 28-year-old Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel (do we really need to keep saying who this guy is?) stepped up to the podium for his inaugural concerts earlier this month at the Hollywood Bowl and Walt Disney Concert Hall.

But that's not Salonen's style. During a recent telephone chat with Culture Monster, Salonen, who stepped down from the post largely to pursue his passion for composing and now holds the heady title of the Philharmonic's first Conductor Laureate, talked about why he was conspicuously absent from the hoopla.

Speaking from New York, where the Finnish-born conductor was rehearsing for his much-anticipated debut conducting the Metropolitan Opera in November, Salonen talked about why he didn't show up to walk the pink carpet at Disney Hall (yeah, it was pink) to smile for the cameras and engage in what would definitely have been a photo-op group hug.

The point of our conversation was to talk about composer John Adams, the Phil's new creative chairman and curator of the upcoming West Coast, Left Coast festival of California music, running Nov.21 to Dec. 8. 

What led Salonen to talk about Dudamel was the question: Would you have wanted to curate the festival?

"Not this close to the end of my tenure," said Salonen quickly. "At some point in the future I would be very happy to do something of this sort, but I really felt that there's a new guy in town, and he should get on with it and do his own thing. I really felt that it would be sort of a natural, right thing to do to give him some space. Which is not to say that I wouldn't be listening."

Continued Salonen: "I'll come back at some point when the dust has settled and start working with the Phil again in a different capacity, a different sort of thing -- but not quite yet."


Even though Salonen's current focus is composing, he says the mental process of curating a music festival is "not that far from composing, really, because the idea is that the bits and pieces would make sense, and of course composing is something like that. Putting a festival together is a highly creative process. It also kind of forces you to study music and listen to music and read music that you may not encounter in any other way. It's also education."

For Salonen, that would be particularly true of the West Coast, Left Coast Festival, since his adopted home of California became such a huge influence on his composing, particularly in the case of "L.A. Variations." "The best way to define California music is to say that it has no narrowly definable characteristics besides the beauty of it," he said. "I think it was absolutely crucial in my case that I came to a place where there was no preconceived idea of what 'new music' means. In Europe there was a kind of rigid sense of what new music is allowed to be, or what it should be."

Though he'll probably be listening, Salonen won't be attending the West Coast, Left Coast Festival either -- even though Dudamel will be conducting Salonen's "L.A. Variations" as part of the program.  "I'm actually working somewhere else at the time," Salonen said. "But it really warms my heart that old 'L.A. Variations' is going to be performed, but conducted by the new man. It gives me a very nice feeling of continuity."

-- Diane Haithman

 (Culture Monster and Calendar will have more about Adams as the festival nears.)

Related story:

Esa-Pekka Salonen: L.A. has been in good hands


Esa-Pekka Salonen embraces Gustavo Dudamel at the April 2007 news conference naming Dudamel as successor. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times.

Salonen conducts the world premiere of "L.A. Variations"  with the L.A. Philharmonic at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1997.  Credit: Iris Schneider / Los Angeles Times