Famed London-based Philharmonia Orchestra, led by former Los Angeles Phil maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen, pays a return visit to Santa Barbara, Wednesday at the Granada, in CAMA’s centennial season.
Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Granada Theatre, 1216 State St.
Cost: $39 to $119
Whenever Finnish conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen shows up in Santa Barbara, as he will when he leads London’s Philharmonia Orchestra at the Granada Theatre on Wednesday — his 14th time here — we get a dual sensation of global cachet and home turf heroism.
He has graced the Granada — under the auspices of the CAMA presenting organization — stage on a handful of occasions now, first with his (underscore “his”) Los Angeles Philharmonic, which he boldly led and solidified during his tenure from 1992 to 2009.
In a sense, Mr. Salonen helped to put L.A.’s orchestra — and Southern California, by proxy — on the international map of orchestras to pay close attention to.
The conductor has returned to the Granada as a more European-based (though still itinerant) head of London’s respected Philharmonia, three times. In 2012, he and the orchestra conjured up a stirring 19th century program of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and the crazed splendor of Berlioz’ pre-psychedelic “Symphonie Fantastique.”
This Wednesday’s program with the Philharmonia, which he took over as music director directly post-L.A. Phil, is another two-work wonder, with Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 and Schoenberg’s pre-12-tone, “accessible” classic “Verklärte Nacht.”
A piece of exciting new news on the Salonen front is that California is welcoming him back into its golden arms, this time as music director of the mighty San Francisco Symphony. Moving up to Northern California, he will be logically picking up the role and momentum left by the departure of noted maestro Michael Tilson Thomas, embedded in the SFO for 25 years (and another lofty visitor to CAMA’s programming over the years).
Few figures in contemporary classical music have a healthier questioning spirit and bounding, multi-leveled talent as this Finn, whose stature as an important composer has advanced steadily in recent years. His most recent high-profile composition was a new Cello Concerto written for Yo-Yo Ma, premiered by the Chicago Symphony in 2017.
His passion for composing proceeds apace, despite the fact of his demanding — and much in demand — life as a conductor. As he told the New York Times’ critic Anthony Tomassini in an interview last week, “Doing something as strange as writing new art music, you send out a very optimistic signal that I actually believe in this. And I believe in the longevity of the art form, and also believe there is a lot to be said still. When we talk about the masters, the underlying message is that the best has happened already. I don’t think so.”
In an interview I did with Mr. Salonen back in 1999, before he brought a memorable, Finnish-oriented program as music director of the Ojai Music Festival, he spoke about his delicate balance of tradition and innovation.
The then-40-year-old musician confessed that, “In my dreams, I still see myself as a part of an anti-establishment movement, which is a really naïve thought considering my position in the music world at the moment. But still, I find it much more stimulating to be against something rather than trying to preserve something. Of course, being a conductor, you inevitably end up becoming a preserving force in the world. I don’t mind that, because there’s an awful lot worth preserving.
“But quite often, I feel terribly nostalgic for the old days, when institutions, as such, were the enemies.”
Twenty years later, he continues to imagine new possibilities and parameters for functioning in the 21st century “serious music” world. A rebel by nature, he professed in a recent New York Times story his cautionary distrust of classical music’s conventions, which he feels can stifle and mislead audiences — and alienate those potential newcomers to the fold. A classical concert is promoted in a certain manner, which he finds questionable, as if to say “Come and hear an immortal masterpiece performed by Maestro So-and-So and a great symphony orchestra.”
Lots of concert halls look like shrines or temples, like a Parthenon. You climb up to make yourself worthy” and “walk out a better person.”
On the bright side, however, he insists that “the good thing is that the actual material we are dealing with on a daily basis is fantastic,” and among “the best things humankind has ever produced.”
Next week at the Granada, the lofty material comes courtesy of Bruckner, a kinder-gentler Schoenberg, and Mr. Salonen’s firm but flexible interpretive touch.