Back after four years away, Esa-Pekka Salonen savors his bond with the CSO

Nicolas Brodard

With his two-week residency this spring, Esa-Pekka Salonen marks his first time back with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in four years. The Finnish conductor-composer readily acknowledges that has missed his musical colleagues in the Windy City.

“I feel very close to the orchestra,” said Salonen, who made his CSO debut in 1988, and is finishing his second season as music director of the San Francisco Symphony. “We have a very good rapport musically and on a personal level. It’s really great. I also have a feeling that we start where we left it last time, so it’s a developing relationship, which makes it even more enjoyable. Maybe this time, we get a little further than last time, which was already good. There is a trajectory, rather than just a couple weeks of gigs.”

For his Chicago concerts, just as he does in many of the other places he conducts, Salonen has assembled two programs that mix well-known repertoire with less-familiar modern masterworks and contemporary works, including one of his own orchestral compositions.

During concerts June 2-4, Salonen will conduct Gemini, which joins two separate compositions, Castor and Pollux, named for twin figures in Greco-Roman mythology who share half of their DNA but are very different. In his extensive program notes, the composer states that the works can be performed individually or together, a combination that he titled Gemini, an astronomical name that refers to the twin stars, Castor and Pollux. The Los Angeles Philharmonic first presented the two together in October 2019. 

“I’m now more inclined to play them together, because the form benefits from the contrast between Pollux, which is slower and less busy, less aggressive, and Castor is all the above and pushes the orchestra to its limits,” he said. “I thought the contrast in itself is already a very powerful, formal element. If you play the pieces separately, you don’t have that.”

When writing Pollux, Salonen realized that the material was going in two separate and very different directions; ultimately, he wrote what he thought would be two separate works in 2018 and 2019. “It is a bit similar to some kind of a narrative in a novel, where the characters start surprising the writer. And there is a dichotomy and sometimes writers don’t even like their characters, and they let them develop nevertheless.”

For Pollux, Salonen discovered what he calls a “mantra rhythm.” While having dinner at a restaurant in Paris, he heard a recording of a post-grunge band in the background. He became so taken with a bass line that he wrote it down on a napkin. “It was one of those things. It was a super-catchy bass line, and I thought the rhythm was intriguing.”  A modified version of that bass line became the “germ” of the entire piece.

Here are Salonen's comments about the other works on his CSO programs:

First week, May 26-31:

Ravel, Mother Goose (1910-11), originally a piano duet, later arranged for orchestra, and Stravinsky, Symphony in Three Movements (1942-45). Salonen describes these “masterpieces of the 20th century” as two of his “favorite classics.”  

Bryce Dessner, Violin Concerto, with Pekka Kuusisto, soloist. The 2021 piece was co-commissioned by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Orchestre de Paris, San Francisco Symphony, Philharmonia Orchestra and Southbank Centre in London.

“It is unlike any violin concerto I have ever heard or seen. It’s a really demanding piece, physically speaking, apart from the musical challenges. It’s very hard for the soloist but also for the orchestra. It really is pushing the envelope, but it’s all playable. It’s not theoretical. The challenges are practical challenges. They are not utopian challenges.

“And the piece kind of treats the violin in different ways. Sometimes, it’s like the traditional solo in a concerto against a backdrop of a symphony orchestra. And sometimes, it’s part of the ensemble, and sometimes it really melts into the tutti strings and kind of zooms in and out in this way. It’s been a huge audience success so far. I’ve done it in San Francisco and also in Paris, and it’s really compelling. It’s a tour de force with musical meaning.”

Second week, June 2-4: 

Caroline Shaw, Entr’acte (2011, adapted for string orchestra, 2014). “She is one of the leading lights at the moment. And to play a piece by her is not ticking a box [for a woman composer]. The reason is that she is a very good composer, and the music is original, compelling and very well crafted. It’s a delight.”

Ravel, Daphnis and Chloé (1912), a one-act ballet. “There was kind of a vague thematic connection in the sense that my piece Gemini is based on the legend of Castor and Pollux. And Daphnis is based on a [Greek novel] by Longus, who was active a lot later, of course. So there is this kind of connection in terms of having two people closely related to each other, but yet very different and going through some kind of process. Ravel’s work is a ballet, and mine is just instrumental music without any kind of story, but there is still some kind of a programmatic connection there.”    

Salonen is not scheduled to return to the CSO in 2022-23, but he is confident that he will be back the following season. “We’re going to discuss that while I’m here,” he said, “and put something in the diary.” 

Support your orchestra
Make a gift