Esa-Pekka Salonen

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s music may be roughly divided into three periods. When studying composition with Rautavaara at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki in the late 1970s he wrote smoothly neo-Romantic chamber music with expressive melodic phrases and tonal harmony, such as Horn music I (1976), Cello Sonata (1977), and Nachtlieder for clarinet and piano (1978).

In 1981, when returning from Italy, where he had spent six months studying with Donatoni in Siena and Castiglioni in Milan, his style had completely changed. He had become a modernist who wrote complicated pieces according to strict serial principles. This phase includes Saxophone Concerto (1981/83), Giro for orchestra (1981), and a series of virtuoso solo and chamber music pieces. In 1983 Salonen made his international breakthrough as a conductor, and two years later he took responsibility for an orchestra (the Swedish RSO) as its chief conductor. This new life, and especially travelling around the world with Mahler, Sibelius and Stravinsky in his luggage, profoundly changed him and his approach to music. In the midst of learning and conducting new scores week after week, he had no time or peace of mind to concentrate on his own music. He began to feel alienated from his own style, and for a while, his future as a composer seemed at stake.

But then, suddenly, he managed to gather up the threads of composing again. He was asked to write a piece for Toimii! Ensemble, a group of musicians gathered around Magnus Lindberg and himself in the early 1980s to form a kind of laboratory where new compositional ideas were forged and tested.

This commission released new forces and a joy of experimenting in Salonen’s mind. He put abstract calculations aside and discovered the gesture as the basic unit of his music. He first designed short musical events, with a clearly defined character of their own, then combined them into larger musical situations, and out of these situations finally grew the macro form of the piece. ’It was like resolving a jigsaw puzzle without knowing the picture’, he once commented.

The piece commissioned by the Toimii! Ensemble was Floof (1988/ 90), a surrealistic virtuoso score for soprano and five players after Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad. The freshness and originality of this music well deserved the prize it was awarded by the International Rostrum of Composers. Other pieces written in this new style include Second Meeting for oboe and piano (1992) and its cousin Mimo II for oboe and orchestra (1992).

After these works, Salonen practically stopped composing for almost four years. He was appointed music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1992 but again found there was little time for composing in his schedule. He received a commission from the orchestra, though, and during the following years, he wrote LA Variations (1996), his largest orchestral work so far. The success of this music opened up a steady flow of works of all kinds, orchestral, vocal, and solo, which clearly prove that he has regained his joy of ’inventing’ music of his own in the midst of the scores by other composers that fill his daily life.

Chester Music (2002)

About Ilkka Oramo

Professor of Music Theory, emeritus
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