Laser on the Podium
Seen from behind, head bowed, in the moment before he electrifies the orchestra with his downbeat, he looks like Little Boy Lost. But not for long. Once his very, very big stick slices the air, he is—like Amazing Grace– forever found.
Esa-Pekka Salonen. The one, the only. Seen and heard recently at the New York Philharmonic, cheered by audience and orchestra alike for Bartok and Debussy, partnering with pianist David Fray in a taut and nuanced Ravel Concerto in G. You could feel the joy that mandated the curtain calls. (And you could see how the string players kept tapping their bows on their stands long after the dictates of courtesy. They kept smiling, too. And why not? They sounded terrific!)
Well. Mr. Salonen has long since come, seen, and conquered a number of orchestras, but it is the LA Philharmonic that he led, loved, and burnished for seventeen years, before recently giving it up to Gustavo Dudamel. He will remain in England with the Philharmonia, direct a few festivals, and take some select guest-conducting gigs, but he wants time to compose, to read, and to smell the flowers, and there’s no one who has given more to earn the privilege.
The first time I encountered Mr. Salonen was as a winner of two tickets for an LA Philharmonic concert in New York a few years ago (courtesy of a Naxos promotion). I sat stunned and slack-jawed to hear him and his Big Band play the familiar and the new. They gave me goosebumps. Two years later, I was in Avery Fisher Hall to hear them again. This time, they played Firebird. It’s a nice piece, of course, and I’ve probably heard it 4,000 times. But here’s the thing – now I was hearing it for the very first time, and I cried.
As his leave-taking in LA approached, howls of despair could be heard from the Walt Disney Concert Hall to the Hollywood Bowl. Fans packed the last concerts, urging a change of heart (impossible in a profession where everything is planned years in advance). The LA Phil’s online shop offered T-shirts (black, the color of mourning) with the logo “Don’t go, Esa-Pekka!” You get the idea.
What the compact and efficient Mr. Salonen (can I call him Esa-Pekka?) has is what every great conductor, musician, and dancer has: a kind of laser-like connection to both other performers and the audience—a current that remains unbroken from the first note, or step, to the last. It’s not something that can be learned. Trust me: you can sense it, and it’s impossible to resist. Your skin knows.
What he also has is a full portfolio. You can hear his work on CDs, i-Tunes, or at amazon.com.
Or learn more at www.esapekkasalonen.com. But that laser connection lives in live. So, if we’re lucky, Esa-Pekka will stop by again for a visit. Just be sure you’re in the hall when the laser is plugged in. (UPDATES: You’re in luck! He’ll be back in the hall, with the New York Philharmonic, from March 10 through March 26, 2011, for a Hungarian Echoes series, including Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and concertos played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Olli Mustonen. Tickets on sale now.) And, if you just can’t wait, catch the New York premiere of his Violin Concerto (he’s conducting!) at the New York City Ballet on June 22, 23, and 26. As the score for Peter Martins’ new ballet, Mirage, with a set by architect Santiago Calitrava, it’s a gala cultural triple play. ep-tickets.html