Esa-Pekka Salonen, Symphonic Superstar

Studio 360

The Finnish conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen's story is like something out of a movie. At 25 years old, he gets the chance, at the last minute, to conduct an orchestra playing Mahler's Third Symphony. He's not familiar with the piece, has almost no time to prepare...and he knocks it out of the park. By age 34 he's in charge of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and, under his direction, the orchestra becomes an American powerhouse. Plus, he's starred in an iPad commercialand created his own app, called The Orchestra. Now, the classical music superstar is about to start a three-year stint as the composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic.

Kurt Andersen: You wrote L.A. Variationsback in 1996 for the L.A. Philharmonic --- did it feel like a response to Southern California or to the orchestra?

Esa-Pekka Salonen: I think it was a response to the sudden freedom I felt after having been in L.A. for a few years, away from the academic contemporary music circles of Europe. So many things were forbidden for my generation of European composers. Melody was not OK, pulse was not OK, modulation was not OK. So I wrote music with the elements I was allowed to use and it was too thin. I'd felt that I'd restricted my imagination to such a degree that I had this sort of artificial gap between the two sides of my brain.

You're a tech nut --- you use digital technology to compose, now this app.How do you feel about technology as part of classical music performance?

It depends. I'm really interested in enhancing the realm of classical performance and enhancing the concert experience. But I think that the very hard core of what we do in symphony orchestras is still so incredibly powerful. When you have a great symphony orchestra playing a masterpiece at full throttle, that sort of thrill is unlike any other. And we have to protect it.