Now that Elliott Carter has passed, we might well bestow the title of “world’s most impressive late-blooming composer” onto the shoulders of Esa-Pekka Salonen. Though as a young man he studied composition at Finland’s Sibelius Academy in the 1970s – and even saw a “composer’s” album of his early pieces issued by the Finlandia label in the '80s – it took Salonen until the first decade of the 21st century to establish himself as a major composer on the world stage.
He wasn’t wasting his time in the intervening decades. As most fans of orchestral music know by now, Salonen was busy as the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic: not only (successfully) advocating for his Finnish contemporaries like Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg, but mastering an impressive swath of the orchestral repertoire, with a special emphasis on the 20th century (from Mahler to Sibelius to Lutosławski and on and on).
By the late '90s, when Salonen could no longer abide the falloff in his writing output, his approach to composing had been noticeably changed. Whereas early efforts like the solo piano piece Yta II show an uneasy truce between the lyrical qualities of Debussy and the pointilistic violence of the post-Xenakis class of composers, the more recent output seemed better at synthesizing Salonen’s many enthusiasms. LA Variations, titled in honor of his long leadership role in Los Angeles, was a bold step forward. But it still lacked what Salonen would soon develop: a reliable sense of abandon and momentum and – well, the technical term might be “fun,” which he now brings with some frequency, even amid his most demanding music for virtuoso players.
The opening movement of the orchestral work Foreign Bodies, for example, has both the motoric chug of early John Adams in the low register, as well as a folk-like melody in the brass that recalls Bartok or Stravinsky’s early ballets. It’s utterly unafraid to be ingratiating and entertaining, even as the orchestration is gratifyingly chewy and complex. And while the composer-conductor has laughed over how he once slept with La Mer at his bedside, hoping that its magic would rub off on his own works, something not too dissimilar from that seems to have occurred in the lyrical conclusion of the second movement of his Piano Concerto (which was warmly received at the New York Philharmonic in 2007, with soloist Yefim Bronfman, who later recorded a fine version for Deutsche Grammophon).
Concertos in particular have been the site of Salonen’s increasingly impressive work as a composer. His Violin Concerto, written for Leila Josefowicz, won the Grawemeyer Prize in 2012 – the same year that its premiere recording was issued. Some of its best music comes during the third movement, titled “Pulse II” where the percussionist at what Salonen has called a “heavy rock kit” is instructed to “go crazy” during a precisely notated climax. It’s clearly indebted to the music of John Adams that Salonen has often conducted, but it’s more than something listeners will allow.
As a world-class composer and conductor, Salonen has been carving out the inverse profile relative to, say, Pierre Boulez. Instead of imposing his own compositional sound world on a diverse range of repertoire like the grand French modernist, the younger Finn has been soaking up lessons from other symphonic masters in order to create a sound world that can stylishly make room for them all, in turn.
The risk, of course, is that one will wind up sounding like a confused fusionist. But Salonen’s unique blend of late romanticism, spectralism, and post-minimalism – and even the techniques he once studied at IRCAM in Paris – has, thus far, accounted for some of the most exciting new classical music of the 21st century. Because Salonen can only be so many places at once, the tension now is between audiences’ desire to hear him conduct in concert halls the world over, and our simultaneous desire to hear new pieces fresh from his composing table.