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Conductor Salonen dashes from Frank Zappa to Stravinsky

Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen of Finland performs on the opening night of the $274 million Walt Disney Concert Hall i
Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen of Finland performs on the opening night of the $274 million Walt Disney Concert Hall i

By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - Finnish conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen dislikes musical anniversaries but he is celebrating so many this year he failed to notice one - the 20th anniversary of the death of the anarchic American rock innovator Frank Zappa.

It isn't often that "Mothers of Invention" founder Zappa's rock-and-orchestral score for his film "200 Motels" is revived, but Salonen, 54, will conduct it in October with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he served as Music Director from 1992 until 2009, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the orchestra's acoustically exquisite Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The fact that this year also is the 20th anniversary of the 1960s cult rock star's death was something Salonen hadn't realized until it was brought to his attention during a recent interview, but he said he was captivated by the idea of reviving Zappa's complex, multi-faceted piece the minute he saw it.

"I opened the score and the first line I saw was that this town (LA) is 'a sealed tuna sandwich'. I said, 'Okay, you can't say that's not a good match.' I realized this is the LA piece I want to conduct before I die."

From conducting "200 Motels" to Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" might seem a stretch, but not so for Salonen, who will be leading Stravinsky's ground-breaking 1913 masterpiece in the same Paris concert hall only a few days after the evening a century ago that its premiere caused a near riot.

Salonen doesn't much like cultural anniversaries: "Very often these anniversaries, it seems like a duty, we play an awful lot and then after the year is over we've done that." But he's observing none with more relish than "The Rite of Spring".

"The miracle of that piece is the eternal youth of it. It's so fresh it still kicks ass and how many 100-year-old pieces do that? There's such powerful vitality in that music it's almost scary," he said over coffee in London.

"LANDED ON THIS PLANET"

"The thing about 'The Rite of Spring' is that it just landed on this planet, there are no predecessors, there are no models. Stravinsky didn't work off of any models. So it's like a perfect egg that drops."

Lack of models is not something that can be said for the works of another of Salonen's anniversary composers, the Pole Witold Lutoslawski whose birth centenary is this year.

Lutoslawski wrote in the 20th-century modernist idiom, with extreme craftsmanship and polish that sometimes makes his pieces seem a bit distant or, at other times, deeply gloomy.

But that's not at all that Salonen finds when he conducts Lutoslawki's symphonies, all four of which have been reissued in a two-CD set by Sony. He recently concluded a Lutoslawski cycle in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra and will make the case for the composer again in Madrid in May.

"I realized apart from a few pieces that seemed to have kept place in the repertoire many of his pieces have kind of disappeared, including some pieces that I found absolutely powerful and fascinating. So I thought I would use this anniversary in such a way that I could shed light on that repertoire to allow people to hear it again and then, of course, the rest is up to the people."

The importance of connecting with people is something that Salonen, both as a conductor and as a composer, which takes up an increasing amount of his time, says he learned in LA.

He became Music Director in Los Angeles at what he considers a ridiculously young age, running a multi-million-dollar cultural institution in his early 30s and having brought with him what he calls his "suitcase full of European superior knowledge of everything".

"In a European way of thinking...we always focus mostly on the intention of the composer...and very little attention is focused on the actual effects, the interface when the music hits the listener - what is that process, what does it do to me?

"And I realized that perhaps my focus had been soft, instead of being primarily interested in the methods I should be more interested in the actual effect.

"What I learned in LA is you cannot actually separate the mind from the body. It's impossible, and it would be meaningless."

He says that attitude has carried over into his music which at times sounds like it belongs to the "spectral" school of composition, with its intense focus on sound and timbre, but at other times turns lushly romantic and poignant, as in his Violin Concerto, which was recorded by American violinist Leila Josefowicz and won the prestigious University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition in 2012.

"It has to do with getting older, because I realized...somebody will always conduct concerts, there are a lot of good guys and women who can do it very well...but only I can write my music, nobody else can do it for me," Salonen said.

"If I don't write the music I want to write it's a dramatic loss to me."

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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