Salonen on Keeping Classical Music Vital

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Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen Keeps Classical Music Current and Vital

The Finnish-born conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen represents somewhat of a dying breed in classical music culture: that of the composer-conductor hybrid. Although back in the day this way the norm, the modern world has caused the two professions to become increasingly specialized, with composers sitting in the front rows scribbling notes on their scores while conductors pick through the piece with orchestra, turning around frequently to ask questions. Society seems to have decided that the two professions have become too complex to be done by the same person. This is not true of Salonen, however. He’s received praise for both his compositions—his violin concerto won the  Grawemeyer Award earlier this year—and he’s been known as a top notch conductor through his work with the LA Phil, the Finnish Radio Symphony, and the Philharmonia Orchestra for decades. He clearly has no problem handling both roles:

But being a conductor and composer in the 21st century means a lot more than just waving a stick and coming up with melodies, at least for Salonen. His view of the modern musician is one that helps classical music to grow, to help it remain vital instead of alien to concert audiences. One of Salonen’s favored methods of doing this is through technology. For example, next month the Philharmonia Orchestra is coming out with a digital app in which Salonen is your musical host. In the app, he explains what’s going on with the different sections of the orchestra and explains all of the aspects that might seem a bit dated—the 19th century dinner suits, the random person waving a stick frantically on a wooden box. Salonen, a self-proclaimed tech geek, hopes that technology can help classical music cut through “pop-culture noise” that has become particularly deafening in last decade.

But, of course, technology alone won’t save keep classical music alive and relevant. Its repertoire needs to continue to grow and adapt also. As a composer, Salonen contributes to this, but he also uses his experience to inform his programming choice. Having studied with Lutoslawski, as a conductor Salonen is intimately familiar with both the current music scene and the very recent past. His insights into repertoire help him portray classical music as something contemporary, something that is alive and relevant.

“How do these gigantic trees of Northern California have this incredible longevity?” he said. “Of course it has to do with the fact they keep growing. If our repertoire doesn’t keep growing, it will stagnate and ultimately die.”

This is exactly what is necessary. I’m not saying that everyone needs to be able to performa and compose, but the mindset where classical music is alive and constantly changing instead of petrified or a historical practices is what we need in order to keep it alive. We don’t need to completely abandon our past, but we can’t just sit in the 19th century forever. Classical music has a long and storied history that includes the last hundred years. Let’s show everyone that.

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