Prom Composer Profile: 13th August 2001 Esa-Pekka Salonen

Salonen
Yta II, for solo piano (1985)
Concert Etude, for solo horn (2000)
Second Meeting, for oboe and piano (1992)

Iain Farrington (piano)
Evgeny Chebykin (horn)
Adrian Wilson (oboe)

Esa-Pekka Salonen in conversation with Sarah Walker

Photograph of Esa-Pekka Salonen by Jacob Forsell


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 13 August, 2001
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Following portraits of James MacMillan (see review of Prom 8) and John Tavener, with John Adams to come (6 September), this focus on Salonen the composer was welcome, and not only as a prelude to the UK premiere of his Foreign Bodies (Prom 34). Internationally known as a conductor, of course, Salonen intended to be a composer before conducting got in the way! Now he has a balanced schedule that allows him both activities.

Having been very impressed by Salonen’s Mania (see Richard Whitehouse’s review, 16 May 2001) and, before that, a couple of similarly expansive works and several ’occasional’ pieces, the three chosen for this programme, equally occasional but – as the composer said – just as sincere, made for engrossing listening. Structural coherence doesn’t inhibit a quixotic turn of phrase or sense of fun in Salonen’s music.

The second of his Yta (Oo-ta) pieces (Yta is the Swedish for ’surface’) is a reaction to “German thinking,” in particular the Darmstadt ’school’ proclaiming musical abstraction as being more important than what we actually hear. “What you hear is what the piece is all about,” says Salonen of Yta II, which is centred on the middle of the keyboard for the most part, colours change in the way light changes during the course of a day. The five-minute, toccata-like Yta II is a gem, second-cousin to Debussy’s Etudes with an expression not wholly out of place in Pierre Boulez’s Second Sonata (especially its first movement), a glittering ’surface’ of activity and pianistic dexterity, brilliantly delivered by Iain Farrington.

The horn etude – composed with inside knowledge by a former horn-player, written for a brass competition in Finland – uses “every trick in the book, and then some”. Lyrical ideas, those that float across mountain tops and remind of the ’Prologue’ and ’Epilogue’ of Britten’s Serenade, become ornately decorated, the horn’s extremes of register are sounded, notes become shorter as rhythmic cut-and-thrust is heightened, a mute offers different tone colours, and echo effects are introduced. Playing from memory, Chebykin couldn’t disguise the open-ended nature of Salonen’s 7-minute test-piece, or its exploitation of technique as being of equal importance to the musical material itself. Chebykin, generous in his projection, was slightly taxed – a stretching of ability was no doubt part of Salonen’s plan – but he made a strong case for the ideas themselves, which reflect Salonen’s sense of musical fantasy.

The 12-minute Second Meeting finds oboe and piano seemingly poles-apart initially, the oboe given an exotic melody and long lines while the piano has trills and more fragmentary material. As the title suggests, a coming-together is the nature of the piece, with dialogue, imitation and unison developing; so too the accumulation and release of energy – the pay-off, harmonically ambiguous, conceptually equivocal perhaps, is certainly definite.

There is with Salonen the ingenuity of the unexpected. Such taunts and diversions are sustained by an underlying sense of direction; Salonen’s fleetness of thought engages and attends alert listening – and leaves something tangible requited and to explore again.

Responding to the friendly and well-versed Sarah Walker, Salonen smiles wryly at the suggestion that all ’European Art’ is profound. He is not concerned with the dividing-line between “entertainment” and “high-art”; he thinks a “disservice” has been done to the art of creation, the “sacred aura” of which is damaging because it “isolates us from the rest of the musical milieu”. Salonen is reciprocally suspicious of those questioning a musician with two trades – he sympathises with Leonard Bernstein for being triple-gifted (composer, conductor, pianist) and having the added “stigma of being American” and not taken seriously – while greatly admiring Pierre Boulez (“obviously”) and Oliver Knussen (“great fan”) in their roles as composers and conductors.

Salonen the composer feels he is now confident enough not to need pastiche; he isn’t conscious of derivation. His music is unpretentious, imaginative, humorous and intelligent.

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