Esa-Pekka Salonen on multi-tasking, Northwestern and the CSO

Esa-Pekka Salonen

Celebrated conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, rehearses with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (Abel Uribe, Chicago Tribune / April 1, 2014)

Perhaps Esa-Pekka Salonen's Nordic cool and Chicago's propensity for long, bone-chilling winters similar to those of his native Finland have destined this musician and this city to be soulmates.

For certain the busy composer and conductor's long-running relationship with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the musical life of the city has become a lot deeper of late.

This week Salonen will wrap up his spring CSO residency with subscription concerts that include one of his own orchestral works, "Nyx," named after the Greek goddess of night. He'll be back for three weeks in May 2015 to take charge of the orchestra's French festival, "Reveries and Passions," focusing on vocal and operatic music by Debussy and Ravel, hardly your typical CSO fare.

But there's more. Next season will mark Salonen's initial term as the 2014 recipient of the Northwestern University Bienen School of Music's prestigious Michael Ludwig Nemmers Composition Prize. The award includes a cash prize of $100,000, four residencies with music students and faculty over the next two years and CSO performances of one of his works during the 2015-16 season.

Between rehearsals last week at Symphony Center, I spoke with the thoughtful Salonen, 55, about his broadening ties to the orchestra and to Chicago music, also about how his quest to find a satisfactory balance between his composing and conducting activities is coming along.

Salonen credits his many years of working with the Chicago musicians (he made his CSO debut in 1988 when he was relatively unknown on the world scene) as having contributed greatly to his artistic development.

"I'm getting a lot of joy out of working with these musicians," he told me. "They are very open-minded, very curious about things, capable of (doing) anything you can possibly ask of them. So I really feel I can go to places with them that are unusual, even for me – explore new sounds, new balances, new articulations. That, for me, is always a sign of a close, creative relationship.

"The CSO has no limits in terms of technical and musical capacity. There's no attitude problem. New music is a normal part of their life. From a composer's point of view, it's a dream, because whatever you write, they will nail."

A self-deprecating laugh. "As long as you know what you're doing!"

Salonen's long and close ties to Chicago music make winning the Nemmers prize feel "kind of organic," he observed, and he is pleased to take his place alongside such distinguished previous winners as composers Kaija Saariaho and Oliver Knussen – "close friends and colleagues whom I greatly admire."

Beyond that, he added, he relishes the opportunity to "give something back to the music education system that brought (me) up. You want to see what music students are doing, to understand their thinking. But it's also about continuity, about connecting with the flow of time, to understand where music is going."

Salonen paused to reflect.

"Every one of us who works in this field becomes part of this fabric we call history. You want to know how you connect with the past but also how you connect with the future. Therefore it becomes more and more important to work with young people. Sometimes they ask questions nobody has asked before, so you have to radically rethink things you've taken for granted."

One of the prime reasons the globe-hopping Finn stepped down from the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009 after 17 years as that orchestra's music director was to free up longer uninterrupted periods of time to compose. He's pleased to report that he's now devoting less than 50 percent of his time – roughly five months of the year – to conducting, the rest of the time to composing. His central podium affiliation at the moment is as principal conductor and musical adviser of London's Philharmonia Orchestra, which he recently took on tour to Moscow.

"It took a while, but for the first time I've found a balance that feels right," Salonen said. "I've done thousands of concerts, so to do another is not important, not the focus of my musical life. So I've been looking at my conducting schedule to see what is essential, what are the projects and repertory I really enjoy doing, what are the relationships that are centrally important to me. The CSO is, of course, a big part of that."

A particular challenge is switching back and forth between directing other composers' music and creating music of his own. Each requires a radically different pacing and level of energy, he explained.

"Conducting is a very intense, high-energy activity – things happen fast and it's intensely social, because you're dealing with 100 orchestra musicians. Composing is the total opposite. It's lonely, and, compared with conducting, it's the difference between running a marathon and a 100-meter race. You have to get to a place where you can hear your own thoughts, and this requires silence."

It usually takes him a week to 10 days to make the switch, to feel things have quieted down enough that he can begin to compose, he added.

Salonen's quiet place for composing turns out to be his old stomping ground, Los Angeles, where he and his wife, Jane Price, a former member of the Philharmonia, recently relocated from London. They did so partly because son Oliver, who's about to turn 15, wanted to attend a high school there, Salonen explained. Their daughters, Ella Aneira and Anja Sofia, attend universities on the East Coast.

"I have my friends in L.A., I guest conduct the L.A. Phil two or three weeks a season, I go to other concerts there, so it's perfect for me," he said.

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