A shuffle Maestro for the iPod audience

Today’s Guardian positively salivates over the news that Esa-Pekka Salonen (left) is taking over as principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London from Christoph von Dohnanyi. Martin Kettle gushes that “in this new battle of the batons the only certain winners look likely to be the London music public, who can look forward to an orchestral life of a quality and diversity with which no other city can compete … Salonen’s wide-ranging, non-traditional approach makes him the closest thing any London orchestra could have found to Sir Simon Rattle. Short of tempting Rattle back from the Berlin Philharmonic, it is hard to think of a more exciting appointment for the Philharmonia to have made”. But slipped in among the purple prose are the key words that Salonen “will remain in charge in Los Angeles when he takes over the Philharmonia.”

Now if we leave aside the fact that some of the Berlin press may well have wished that Rattle had been tempted back from Berlin, we will soon have the Philharmonia headed by a conductor with one foot in London and one in the West Coast, and the London Symphony headed by Valery Gergiev, who will have one foot in London, one in Rotterdam, and his heart in St Petersburg. Shuffle Maestros may well appeal to iPod audiences, but there are many who would have welcomed an appointment by the Philharmonia in the style of Jonathan Nott at the Bamberg Symphony. This talented young conductor has raised an unknown band to world-class quality by working in the old Kappelmeister tradition, and keeping both feet, and his heart, firmly anchored in provincial Germany.

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Pliable said…
Email just in .....

Hello, it's a plus for London that Salonen's arriving, I think, but who is Kettle referring to when he says that the LA Philharmonic is "regarded as America's top symphony orchestra"? Certainly no one who's heard Cleveland or Chicago lately. Salonen has undoubtedly brought his LA musicians along, but their Mahler 5 last spring was listless.

Best, Marc

marc geelhoed
associate music editor/classical music writer

time out chicago
247 s. state st.
17th floor
chicago, il 60604
Pliable said…
And an email from Paris. As well as pointing out that I had done a Lebrecht and typed London Philharmonic instead of London Symphony (now corrected) it also observes:

this is still great news for the Philharmonia as well as ... British Airways
Anonymous said…
He looks dashing, but I've heard very little from Salonen (or the L.A. Phil, for that matter) that ever impressed me. Although his Herrmann was great, I find Salonen's treatment of the "war horses" quite shallow. For example, I attended a perfomance of Bruckner 4 some years ago, and caught Salonen falling all too easily into the trap of making the piece episodic, rather than an organic whole that builds momentum with each crescendo.
Pliable said…
Spodvoll, thank you for mentioning Salonen's recording of Bernard Herrmann's film scores.

I agree it is one of his finest CDs. As well as superb performances of very good music it is noteable for its stunning sound. Appropriately it was made at the Todd-AO Scoring Studio in Studio City, LA. The Sony recording was produced by a very great producer and former EMI colleague of mine, David Mottley.
Pliable said…
Spodvoll, thank you for reminding us of Salonen's recording of Bernard Herrmann's film scores.

I agree it is one of his finest CDs. As well as superb performances of very good music it is noteable for its stunning sound. Appropriately it was made at the Todd-AO Scoring Studio in Studio City, LA. The Sony recording was produced by a very great producer and former EMI colleague of mine, David Mottley.

There is another interesting EMI connection with Salonen. His big break came when he took over a Philharmonia concert of Mahler 3 at the last minute when the scheduled conductor fell ill - a concert I was at. The Managing Director of the Philharmonia who had spotted Salonen and gave him the break was Christopher Bishop. As EMI's senior producer (and Grammy winner - see below) Bishop made many classic recordings with Boult, Previn, Muti, the King's Singers, David Munrow, and countless others.

Here are Paths to some related EMI links - A little piece of recording history, Her Master's Grammy, Reflections on the Philadelphia Orchestra, Simply chic symphonies? and Quiet celebration with friends.
Henry Holland said…
Spodvoll hits on what we here in Los Angeles have known since Mr. Salonen was appointed: when he conducts his enthusiasms, such as Stravinsky, Bartok, Debussy, Messaien, modern Scandanavian stuff (he's a big fan of Kaija Saariaho, for instance), minimialist stuff like John Adams and a few other things, he's very good. As for the standard rep of 19th century Germans/Austrians, well..........

Yes, Mr. Geelhoed is right, the claim that my local band is the best orchestra in the US is risible. The Cleveland Orchestra played at Disney Hall last year in a program of Beethoven, Ravel, Dutilleux and Debussy and apart from what anyone thought of Franz Welser-Most's conducting (I thoroughly enjoyed it, for what its worth), the orchestra itself blew the LA Phil out of the water. Mein Gott, brass players who play in tune and don't sound like frogs when they make an entrance, what a concept! The Clevelanders played flawlessly and beautifully and it made me kind of envious. :-)
Anonymous said…
Also being an LA resident and having some familiarity with Salonen's conducting I would argue that it's the strengths and weaknesses that Mr. Holland points out that make Salonen and the orchestra so exciting and, yes, probably the most important orchestra in the US. Playing the same old 19th century rep over and over is part of what is killing classical music in the US (that and no music education anymore) and Salonen has done more than just about any other music director currently working in the US with a major orchestra to correct this.

As for Cleveland, given their rapidly declining fortunes in their own home town, it's no surprise they play so well away from it. I too saw one of their LA performances last year and I suppose they did blow the LA Philharmonic out of the water - if you are used to swimming in the shallow end of the pool.
Henry Holland said…
Playing the same old 19th century rep over and over is part of what is killing classical music in the US (that and no music education anymore)

Oh, that again. *sigh* Where's the PROOF --I mean, actual rigorous stats, not wishful thinking-- for that view? I guarantee the bean counters on Grand Avenue rejoiced when Sariaaho's Passion of Simone got cancelled recently because of Dawn Upshaw's unfortunate breast cancer situation and was replaced by the Mahler 2nd. I was bummed, I love her music, but then I'm a distinct minority.

Having been to more concerts than I care to remember of concerts featuring contemporary fare that drew 1/2 full, heavily papered houses in the old Dot, I don't think your claim is true at all.

I've been saying for years that orchestras should market themselves to people in their 50's and above, people whose kids have left home, which means they'd now have the time and money to explore classical music. But, no, that's not "cutting edge" or "pop culture friendly" or "reaching out to the youth of today".

Everyone went nuts over the Minmalist Jukebox last year but I couldn't see the relevance of a one-shot festival to the ongoing programming of the orchestra. Fans of minimalism do NOT automatically equal fans of the orchestral rep, though, of course, there's overlap.

I'm a maximalist, I loathe minimalism, I love BirtwistleFerneyhoughBoulezMurail type stuff, you'd have had to have paid me thousands of dollars to go to one of those concerts. And Salonen dropped out of the Shostakovich symphony cycle early on because he discovered after, what, 3 concerts in the first year of the five (4 symphonies in total) what me and my friends have been saying for years: his music isn't very good.

Look at concerts the LA Phil has done with contemporary pieces. They are almost always surrounded by crowd pleasers from....wait for it...the 19th century rep because it's been shown time and time and time again that that's the only way to keep people from fleeing in droves.

In cities like Philadelphia, they don't even really bother with new stuff. Eschenbach is leaving partly because they don't like his conducting, but also because of complaints that he programs too much modern stuff (see: Boulez, Pierre; New York Philharmonic). Their audience has made it crystal clear what they want: Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Wagner bleeding chunks, orchestral showpieces by Rimsky and Holst and maybe, just maybe some pretty Debussy or Ravel.

From what I understand, orchestra attnedance is steady or even slightly up in the US, as it is for opera. If you're talking about "relevance to the wider culture" and "speaking to our times" all that Greg Sandowian stuff, I couldn't possibly care less, it would be impossible. People seem to forget that there's always going to be people for whom the Beethoven 5th or La Boheme is a brand new experience.
Pliable said…
I've run Henry Holland's last comment as a separate post because it deserves it.

So it is worth checking for comments on Killing classical music in the US as well.
Pliable said…
Email from Marc Geelhoed:

Hi "PIiable,"

I should've made this clearer in my email: Salonen was NOT the conductor of that Mahler 5, it was Ingo Metzmacher in charge of that dull reading. But the orchestra didn't show the lovely flexibility and attention to dynamics of, say, the Cleveland Orchestra. Salonen with LA in Daphnis et Chloe remains a wonderful memory, however. Too inconsistent to be considered the greatest in the US.

Thanks, M
Anonymous said…
I wouldn't want to stake my family's fortunes on my ability as a music critic, but to my humble ears the best US band I've heard in the last five years is the Minnesota under Mr. Vanska. Something special seems to be going on in Minneapolis and Mr. Vanska has committed himself as music director until 2011. Doubters really should check one of the new Beethoven recordings for BIS, especially if you own a SACD system.

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