Salzburg Journal, Part III


I ask the conductor to comment on a mystery: Why did Sibelius stop composing in the last 30 years of his life? Did he lose his gift? Did the muse stop speaking to him or something?

Salonen says he has a theory — just a theory. Sibelius was the most famous Finn in the world. The only Finn on the cover of Time magazine, for example. The entire nation looked up to him. The entire nation revered and adulated him. There was great pressure on him, according to this theory, to compose very well, to make every piece a masterpiece. The pressure got to him.

Salonen relates, “His biographer went into a bakery to buy some bread, and the baker refused to charge him. ‘How can we take money from the biographer of our great Sibelius?’” That was the atmosphere in Finland.

Anyway, a theory, and I’m glad to have heard it.

When a student, Salonen studied the French horn, a notoriously difficult instrument. He says that, compared with the French horn, the trumpet, trombone, and other brass instruments are “like nothing.” I say that, as a critic, I tend to cut horn players a lot of slack — maybe too much — because they are virtually destined to flub. “You are right to cut them slack,” says Salonen.

He says that something funny happens, when he conducts an orchestra. There is a certain understanding between him and the horn section. They know that he was a horn player; he knows that they know. The common feeling is, “We know how hard this is, right?” “I don’t even look at them,” Salonen tells me. Often, when a conductor looks at an orchestra member, it’s to admonish, remonstrate, rebuke. “And the worse they play, the less I look at them.”

Believe me, musicians, especially orchestral musicians, would find this hilarious.

Salonen has one of the great “creation stories” in all of music. By that I mean, the story of the launch of his career is absolutely wonderful. I will tell it as Salonen told it, as I remember his telling it.

In 1983, Michael Tilson Thomas was scheduled to conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra. He injured himself playing tennis. Orchestra management had to scramble to find a substitute. They reached the bottom of the barrel: Salonen, a young, unknown conductor in Finland. Salonen’s manager gave him a call, at 7:30 in the morning. Salonen was none too pleased; he had been up late with his mates.

The manager spent half his time working in music and half his time selling golf equipment. He had his office at a golf course in western Finland. That’s where the faxes came in, regarding his musical clients, including Salonen.

He said to Salonen, “The Philharmonia wants you to conduct Mahler’s Third Symphony three days from now.” Salonen said, in essence, “You’re joking.” Salonen didn’t know this symphony. He hadn’t heard it, hadn’t seen it. He said, “Well, let me go to the library and have a look.” He learned the score. And he conducted the Philharmonia.

Recognize, please, that the Mahler Third is not an ordinary piece of music — it is not “Twinkle, Twinkle.” It is one of the strangest, most profound, most important symphonies in the entire literature. It is also “the longest,” says Salonen.

After the Philharmonia concert, a man approached him and said, “I’m Ernest Fleischmann, the executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I think you should be our next music director.” Salonen thought this man was a crackpot, practically a street person. He later learned that there was indeed a man named Ernest Fleischmann, and that he was indeed the executive director of the L.A. Philharmonic.

Following this London triumph of Salonen’s, the faxes started to pour into that golf course in Finland: Salonen was known and in demand.

I have more from Salonen, but maybe we knock off for today, after one more (unrelated) item?

In the first installment of this journal, I mentioned Bruckner — Anton Bruckner, the Austrian composer who lived from 1824 to 1896 — about whom I gave a talk, to a group of American music-lovers. During my stay in Salzburg, I run into a dear lady from Upper Austria, which is to say, Bruckner country. She tells me something I never knew: Her grandmother was one of the young women with whom Bruckner fell in love. Bruckner fell in love with many such women, or girls. Nothing ever came of it.

My friend, the Upper Austrian, is one of the most elegant, most engaging, most sparkling women around. With her words, she gives me a picture of her grandmother and that milieu. And, after we’ve talked, I feel I have touched the life of Bruckner, somehow.

Okay, more tomorrow — thanks.



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