A Manifesto for a 21st-Century Concert. (Drinks Allowed.)
Posted June 6, 2018 7:36 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — “The concert experience has become predictable,” the composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen said this week. “I’m not talking about artistic quality or content of the program, but the ritual itself. It’s quite predictable — and, visually, mostly dead boring, to be totally honest.”
Salonen, jet lagged after flying in from London and fresh from a rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic, was speaking at David Geffen Hall while preparing for “Foreign Bodies,” a one-night-only interdisciplinary extravaganza on Friday that marks the end of his three-year tenure as the orchestra’s composer in residence.
But the program isn’t only a showcase of Salonen’s work; he shares billing with the New York premiere of a violin concerto by Daniel Bjarnason, a video installation by Tal Rosner and choreography by Wayne McGregor. If anything, the evening is a manifesto for what Salonen thinks the 21st-century concert could — and should — be.
Oh, and drinks will be allowed in the hall — a rarity at Lincoln Center.
“I’m not trying to say that every concert has to have all kinds of bells and whistles,” he said over a Nespresso in one of Geffen Hall’s green rooms.
But orchestras, he added, must consider what audiences — especially young ones — want from a performance. “People are quite used to not only following narrative layers at the same time, but also expecting it,” he said. “There’s the news, then there’s the ticker. That’s totally normal.”
So in lieu of Salonen’s “Lachen Verlernt” and “Nyx” as strictly instrumental, they will be heard on Friday as the score to McGregor’s 2016 ballet “Obsidian Tear”; the music and dance, Salonen said, “inform each other, and it enriches the experience.”
It’s a glimpse at what might have been had he become the Philharmonic’s director, as many critics hoped he would. (He said he wasn’t interested in the job.) Still, Salonen has been a fixture in New York, with regular appearances at Geffen, the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall. His music is well represented by the Philharmonic, by way of the composer residency, and visiting orchestras.
Indeed, that’s why he didn’t want “Foreign Bodies” to be all about him.
“Pieces of mine are not news in New York City,” he said. “I thought, rather than just doing another concert, it would be nice to put things into a different kind of context. I also just wanted it to be a deeply entertaining event.”
Salonen is turning 60 this month but still looks perennially boyish, these days with a bit of scruff instead of a clean shave; he speaks slowly and intelligently, as if editing sentences in real time. As a conductor, he keeps a busy, though selective, calendar. (Coming projects include his first go at Wagner’s “Ring” cycle next year, along with a new production of Weill and Brecht’s “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” directed by Ivo van Hove, at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France next summer.)
He said there is much talent among today’s young composers, whom he has championed both in major halls and smaller spaces like National Sawdust in Brooklyn. And they don’t have to adhere to the strict definitions of new music that once bedeviled Salonen and his peers.
But such openness, he observed, means that fewer and fewer youngsters are interested in writing for symphonies, a development Salonen rues. “That would be an absolutely catastrophic thing for this culture,” he said, “if they had no interest in orchestras.”
It doesn’t help that writing for a big orchestra is, he said in typically metaphor-happy fashion, like being Wile E. Coyote in pursuit of the Road Runner. Because of tight rehearsal schedules, there is no time to revise new pieces or workshop them with the conductor and musicians. Instead, he said, “there should be an infrastructure that allows young composers to develop their orchestral repertoire over a season or two.”
As for himself, Salonen remains committed to symphonic music, but he has lofty ideas about where to take the art form next. He’s a bit of a tech fanatic — you might have even seen him in a series of Apple commercials, and he was a force behind an app made for the Philharmonia Orchestra, where he is principal conductor. He thinks 360-degree sound systems and virtual reality, which could put audiences in the center of the action and show what he calls “the near-mysterious ways” orchestras work, are the next frontier.
These new, largely inexpensive technologies, Salonen believes, could give way to “a neo-Wagnerian idea of a Gesamtkunstwerk. You can write a piece for a symphony orchestra, electronics, holograms, VR and 360-sound design, this kind of amalgam of highly trained live musicians mixing with state-of-the-art technology.”
Will Salonen be the first composer to try?
“Well,” he said with a laugh, “I wouldn’t mind.”
New York Philharmonic
Friday at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center; 212-875-5656, nyphil.org.