Esa-Pekka Salonen: LA Variations, Five Images after Sappho, Mania, Gambit, Giro

To view Esa-Pekka Salonen as a conductor who also composes is to consider his story in reverse. When he was a student at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki in the ’70s, Salonen entered Jorma Panula’s conducting class primarily as a composer, as well as an excellent horn player. He wanted to learn conducting because he thought a young composer should be able to perform his own orchestral works—it would certainly enhance the odds of having one’s work performed.

He proved to be a gifted conductor, achieving remarkable success quite quickly, and what happened then was inevitable. His busy life, which soon included responsibility for an orchestra of his own (the Swedish RSO from 1985), considerably lessened his time for composing. Only in the second half of the 1990s, having established himself as one of the most sought-after conductors of his generation, could the young music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic begin once again to focus on composition. A steady flow of substantial works proves that he is at least as much an “inventor of music” (to put it in Stravinskyan terms) as a performer of it. And as a musician for whom composing and conducting are two approaches to the same thing—the mystery of music—he continues the great tradition of such men as Mahler, Strauss and Boulez.

LA Variations (1996/97), which was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and had its triumphant premiere in January 1997, is, as the title suggests, Salonen’s tribute to his orchestra, of which he is extremely proud. The music itself includes a tribute the composer has admitted: a couple of brass chords in a section he calls the “Big Machine” are a salute to Sibelius, a composer important to Salonen, not merely for patriotic reasons, but because of his musical innovations, which have passed unremarked in a time tending to identify progress in music with progressive harmony. In addition, there is another quasi-Sibelian moment in LA Variations. Compare the opening section, the first ten bars, with the opening of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony. The gesture is the same: a fortissimo outburst followed by a lengthy diminuendo until the first theme is heard.

There are themes in LA Variations, but the work is not a “theme and variations.” It is “chord and variations” or, to be more precise, variations on two hexachords covering together the twelve-note field. The music is modal most of the time, but it also has its dense moments involving all the twelve tones of the chromatic scale. Formally, the piece is divided into more than twenty sections, each with a character of its own. One can find, for instance, a folk music-like section (immediately after the introductory bars), a chorale, a scherzo, a canon, a “Big Machine” that uses the orchestra’s full power, etc. The “Big Machine,” as I hear it, is a metaphor of the hectic lifestyle of our time, into which an individual is thrown like a grain of sand into a concrete mixer. There is a feeling of something autobiographical to it; the work is f full of optimism and includes moments of pure joy.

Five Images after Sappho (1999) is Salonen’s first vocal score after the surrealist Floof (Stanislaus Lem, 1988/90). Co-commissioned by Ojai Festival, California, and the London Sinfonietta, it was written with the voice of Dawn Upshaw in mind. Salonen became fascinated by the verses of Sappho (c610 – c580 BC, Lesbos, Asia Minor), a poet of whom almost nothing is known for sure but who has been greatly admired through the ages for the beauty of her writing. As he puts it, “Sappho reveals to us secrets of the female soul like nobody else. There is no subject more interesting.” These five songs tell a story of a young girl’s awakening, falling in love, excitement, doubts and, finally, of her wedding and consummation of marriage. The cycle is scored for a sinfonietta ensemble of fourteen players and the basis of its harmony is pentatonic.

Giro, written in 1981 in the spirit of post-World War II modernism, turned out to be utterly difficult to perform, and the composer withdrew the piece after a couple of performances. Sixteen years later he took a second look at the score, saw music in it he still did like, and decided to rewrite the piece. The 1997 version of Giro (from Italian girare, to turn) is greatly revised, with a new middle section. The rhythms are much less complex, the orchestration is more clearly defined, and the harmony opens up to give a full-bodied sound by approaching a kind of tonality. He first performed the revised Giro in Porvoo, Finland, in June 1997, with Avanti!, a Helsinki-based chamber orchestra he and fellow conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste had founded together in 1983.

Mania (2000/01) is a cello concerto written for Anssi Karttunen, a Finnish cellist of remarkable virtuosity, with whom Salonen has collaborated for two decades. Scored for an ensemble of fourteen players, Mania is a one-movement piece, about “movement that never stops,” to quote Salonen. There are sections of virtuoso pattern playing, in which the cello merges with the rest of the ensemble, as well as sections of singing lyricism, in which attention is focused on the noble lines of the solo instrument against the iridescent or nervously fluttering background of the ensemble.

Gambit (1998), commissioned by the Holland Festival, is a birthday present to Magnus Lindberg, a fellow composer and close friend. Its name, a chess term, might refer to the piece as a whole or to its opening four measures which quote a typical Magnus Lindberg harmony. The rest is very much a portrait of the composer himself during his American years. In these years simple, clear-cut musical ideas, dressed in brilliant orchestration and presented with an inextinguishable rhythmic energy, have become his trademark.

Sony Classical SK 89158 (2001)

About Ilkka Oramo

Professor of Music Theory, emeritus
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