Maestro will pass baton to up-and-comer in '09
Salonen will leave his L.A. Philharmonic post to young Venezuelan.
By Mark Swed
Times Staff Writer
April 8, 2007
After helping make the Los Angeles Philharmonic one of the world's
most adventurous and versatile orchestras, Esa-Pekka Salonen has
decided to step down as music director at the end of the 2008-09
season. His successor, the Philharmonic will announce Monday,
will be Gustavo Dudamel, a charismatic 26-year-old conductor
Salonen, who will still live in Los Angeles, intends to concentrate
on composing, although he plans to continue to conduct the
Philharmonic and other orchestras.
"I always felt that one day I would have to make the change in
my own life, bite the bullet and see what it is to be a composer
who conducts rather than the other way around," he said in an
"There is nothing drastic or dramatic behind this," he said. "I
would say it's something quite normal or organic in my case."
Already nearly as in demand as a composer as he is as a conductor,
Salonen, 48, said he had long wanted to find more time to write.
But his scheduled departure will still make him the longest-serving
music director in the history of the Philharmonic, which was
founded in 1919.
Signing Dudamel to a five-year contract as its next music director,
beginning in the 2009-10 season, is a daring move by the orchestra.
Audiences instantly respond to his ebullience and his curly-haired,
boyish good looks. Yet although several major orchestras are
believed to have been vying for him, Dudamel had never stood
before a professional orchestra before taking part in a conducting
competition sponsored by the Bamberg Symphony in Germany three
He was hailed as a natural on the podium and easily won that
competition. Former longtime Philharmonic General Manager Ernest
Fleischmann, who was among the jurors, told The Times in December:
"Of the hundreds of conductors I've come across, only a few in
their early 20s were of his caliber. Two others were Esa-Pekka
and Simon Rattle, now music director of the Berlin Philharmonic."
Dudamel's U.S. debut was conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic
at the Hollywood Bowl in the summer of 2005, and it proved an
immediate sensation because of the electricity of his gestures
and his unbounded enthusiasm.
Since then, he has conducted some of the world's most important
orchestras, including the Boston Symphony, and has conducted
at Italy's La Scala opera house. Next season, he is scheduled
to make his debuts with the New York Philharmonic, the Berlin
Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. He has also been signed
to an exclusive contract by the Deutsche Grammophon record label.
On Thursday night, he led the Chicago Symphony for the first
"Los Angeles was the first orchestra to give me the opportunity
to make my U.S. debut at the very beginning of my career," Dudamel
said from Chicago. "The energy was very special from the start,
and I love how open to new ideas the orchestra is."
With the joint announcement of Salonen's departure and Dudamel's
hiring, the Philharmonic is bypassing the typical lengthy search
during which an orchestra's every guest conductor is scrutinized
by the public and media as a possible candidate for its leadership.
In some cases, an orchestra can flounder for years without a music
director. Nor will the Philharmonic be forced to compete with the
Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago
Symphony, all of which are in the midst of conductor searches.
L.A. Philharmonic President Deborah Borda said that because
Salonen has always been forthright about his desire to compose
more, she began thinking about a new music director from the
moment she assumed her post in 2000.
More recently, a small Artistic Liaison Committee made up of
Borda, Salonen and select members of the orchestra and its board
of directors quietly evaluated conductors. Borda said the response
from both the players and the public to Dudamel's first concert
with the Philharmonic at Disney Hall, in January, when he was
even more impressive than at his Bowl appearance, is what swayed
Under the Finnish-born Salonen - who was himself 26 when he first
conducted the Philharmonic in 1984 and 34 when he became music
director in 1992 - the orchestra has become known for the dynamism
of his performances and for his fresh ideas about programming.
He also raised the ensemble's profile in 2003 when he ushered
it into a new home at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert
Hall, a venue that has made it the envy of orchestras worldwide.
Lately, the orchestra has been in the news for works it has
commissioned; for such special projects as a concert presentation
of the Wagner opera "Tristan and Isolde," with video by Bill
Viola and staging by Peter Sellars, which it is scheduled to
begin repeating Thursday; and for performances of Salonen's own
music, which combines a European rigor with a West Coast pizazz.
Those works include the 1997 orchestral piece "LA Variations";
the 2004 "Wing on Wing," for orchestra and two sopranos, written
for Disney Hall; and a piano concerto that was given its world
premiere in February by soloist Yefim Bronfman and the New York
Philharmonic, with Salonen conducting.
In the 2008-09 season, his last with the Philharmonic, Salonen
is also set to become chief conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra
of London. But that position comes with no administrative duties
and does not require him to conduct the enormous amount of
standard repertory expected of a music director in America.
The job in Britain will also not require him to leave Los Angeles,
where he lives with his wife, Jane; two daughters; and a son.
"I'm very happy to be a California artist; it suits me very
well," he said. And he contended that he would continue to find
projects locally, such as his well-attended Stravinsky and Ligeti
festivals with the Philharmonic. "I know that as long as I'm
able to function as a musician in any capacity, I'll be working
with the L.A. Philharmonic in some capacity."
Salonen will, however, give up what was reported in The Times
last year as the highest salary among Southern California nonprofit
arts organizations. The Philharmonic does not divulge salaries,
but tax records show Salonen was paid nearly $1.3 million in
2004, although the figure is significantly lower than other top
maestros, who can make more than $2 million a year. Dudamel's
age and relative lack of fame are likely to keep his salary well
below Salonen's current figure, at least for a few years.
At his Brentwood home last week, Salonen, who was also on the
jury of the Bamberg competition three years ago, suggested that
Dudamel's inexperience should be of little concern.
"He's definitely equipped with everything one needs to be
conductor, and the mind is incredibly agile and quick," Salonen
said. He also noted that "investing in the future is very much
in the spirit of this organization. The fascinating thing is
going to be: What is the world for a twentysomething like? It's
bound to be very different from my world."
The Philharmonic's trust in youth has been rewarded. Zubin Mehta
was 26 when he became music director in 1962, and he remained
with the orchestra for 16 years.
Another big change for the orchestra will be the Latin American
perspective Dudamel will bring, including what he said would
be the inclusion of music by more Central and South American
composers. Presuming that Placido Domingo, who grew up in Madrid
and Mexico City, remains general director of Los Angeles Opera,
the Southland's two largest performing arts organizations will,
by decade's end, be run by Latinos.
Dudamel, who was born in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, to a trombonist
father and a voice teacher mother, is a product of his country's
extensive music education program, which provides children the
opportunity to study instruments and play in orchestras at an
early age. Dudamel took up the violin at 10 and began conducting
Since 1999, he has been music director of the Simon Bolivar
National Youth Orchestra, with which he is scheduled to perform
at Disney Hall in the fall. He will also become principal conductor
of the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden next season but said he
planned to divide his time among the three orchestras. This will
oblige him to reduce his guest conducting appearances but not
"It is always beautiful to dance with other girls," he said.
For all the emphasis on youth in Southern California, Philharmonic
President Borda said she recognized that the appointment of
Dudamel comes with many unknowns.
"Of course we don't know what's going to happen," she said. "But
remember, he's been conducting Mahler symphonies since he was a
teenager. He's been doing those works at a much younger age than
"Now we must let him be him."
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