NEW YORK: As one of the leading lights in contemporary classical music, Esa-Pekka Salonen is in an enviable position where he can pick and choose at will.
The 57-year-old Finn is in New York conducting the Metropolitan Opera’s triumphant production of Elektra, the challenging Strauss work that Salonen said had figured on a list he jotted down in his 20s of operas he hoped to perform.
But Salonen, who led the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 17 years, during which he was hailed for putting the orchestra on the cutting edge, said he hoped to devote more time to composing.
Salonen has tried to split each year evenly between composing and conducting, but said he was “not quite sure where I should be yet.”
“I’m thinking of further reducing my conducting schedule to some degree just to strike the right balance,” he told AFP at the Metropolitan Opera.
“I’m in a very good situation in terms of my work that I don’t have to do anything I really don’t have to do, and I’m grateful to be able to choose things that really matter,” he said.
“It took me a long time to get to this point, but I’m enjoying it,” he said.
Declines US top jobs
Salonen is spending a three-year stint as composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic and had been considered a frontrunner to succeed the retiring Alan Gilbert as music director of the most prestigious US orchestra.
But Salonen—who is also the principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, which is known for its contemporary selections—indicated he was not interested and the job went to Jaap van Zweden, a Dutch conductor known for his mastery of the classical canon.
Salonen would have another strong chance to stay in New York. James Levine, one of the world’s most identifiable conductors, is stepping down as music director at the Metropolitan Opera at the end of the season for health reasons, ending a 40-year tenure.
Salonen was recently announced as Levine’s replacement for three Met concerts next year at Carnegie Hall. But he indicated he was not interested in taking over permanently.
“If one takes music directorship of an opera house seriously, as one should, it would mean a massive commitment. And to get results, one has to spend at least half the year physically in the house,” Salonen said.
He hailed Levine’s talents but said the maestro also succeeded because he “worked tirelessly, 24/7, for decades.”
“So it’s something that would not be even thinkable in my case, because I have this other life that is equally demanding, although less spectacular because it happens in my private room,” he said with a laugh.
Salonen’s best-known compositions include “Los Angeles Variations,” a complex but audience-accessible work that the Finn conceived of in a burst of happiness while sipping coffee in the sunshine of Santa Monica.
Salonen has come to find his inspiration in the “curiosity and openness” of Los Angeles, a city so often maligned by high-brow artists.
Salonen said he felt the spirit of Los Angeles immediately when the Philharmonic took a “major risk” to pick him, then with little name recognition, to succeed the titan Andre Previn.
Compared with the long institutional traditions in Europe and the US East Coast, “in a place like LA things are less set, and the whole idea of the city is that of movement rather than a fixed image or picture,” he said.
Salonen chooses to live in Los Angeles but returns frequently to Europe, where a packed summer schedule will include a production of the opera “Oedipus Rex” at the Aix-en-Provence festival directed by Los Angeles modernist Peter Sellars, known for his daring interpretations.
The Met’s Elektra is more austere, with an unadorned, detail-rich production by French director Patrice Chereau.
Chereau died shortly after the production premiered in 2013 at Aix-en-Provence. At the Met, the acclaimed Swedish soprano Nina Stemme stars as the title character, bringing a celebrated voice that glides from powerful highs to darkness.
Elektra will be broadcast to cinemas worldwide Saturday as part of the Met’s “Live in HD” program.
Salonen said he was drawn to Elektra by how far Strauss reached in new directions while staying true to his musical foundation as he adapted the Greek tragedy about family vengeance.
“It’s quite unbelievable how he manages this complexity and yet keeps things transparent enough that we can understand the text and how he skips between craziness, insanity and tenderness,” Salonen ended.