It didn‘t take too much gift of prophecy to recognize the fates that brought Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic to a merger of their destinies. People still talk about his debut here (November 29, 1984) — a fair-haired conqueror from an exotic land, bearing an abrasive new hitherto-unknown symphony (the Lutoslawski Third). Credit Ernest Fleischmann — who ”just happened“ to be in London when Salonen ”just happened“ to be available to stand in for the ailing Michael Tilson Thomas — for his accustomed skill at fate-twisting to transform Salonen’s one-shot triumph into a fully realized career.
You need some history to realize the extent of Salonen‘s accomplishment as he begins his 10th year as music director. He took on an orchestra demoralized after the fiasco of the Andre Previn years, in a city that had to be taught all over again to care about its cultural amenities. The boyish good looks helped, but the musical qualities helped even more. Not every orchestra member was immediately pleased — the stick technique took getting used to; so did the strictly business rehearsal manner; so, of course, did some of the repertory choices. When the New York reviews came in after the touring began, and when the recording engineers from Sony came to call, Los Angeles became sold on its newly acquired treasure.
Salonen’s success here has registered with the folks back home as well. If nobody paid much attention to the musical life around the Baltic — Finland, mostly, but Estonia not far behind — they do now. At the very time when the old middle-European ways seem at their dreariest — as witness the conductor situation with East Coast and Midwest orchestras — here come the blond Baltics with their funny names and their dazzling music making: Salonen first, closely followed by the likes of Saraste, Mustonen, Hynninen, Lindberg and who‘s that new guy in Minneapolis? I asked Salonen recently about this sudden invasion from the North.
”There are several explanations,“ he said, ”each of them rather simple. The Finnish government established a system of communal music schools about 30 years ago, and this is now the harvesting time. Every little town has a music school; if a student can’t pay tuition or buy an instrument, those are provided free. A capable student moves on from the small music school to a bigger one. The best are taken to the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. Whatever quality there is, is found; you can‘t hide talent.
“Then there is this matter of Sibelius. For 600 years, Finland was under Swedish rule, and the Finnish language was spoken only by peasants. From 1809, under Russian rule, the Finnish identity was even more endangered. In came Sibelius. He spoke Swedish, but he was chasing a girl whose parents were fanatical Finnish speakers, so he learned Finnish. He composed, and the patriotic messages in Finlandia and the Second Symphony became symbols of a Finnish identity. The Russians could cross out dangerous lines in political writing, but you can’t censor musical phrases. Sibelius became a monument, which killed his creativity but gave birth to his country. Finland‘s classical music has always been the best way to tell the world we exist.”