Sometime in the late 1970s or early ’80s, Esa-Pekka Salonen went to hear “Siddharta,” an opera about the early life of the Buddha by Danish composer Per Norgard. Salonen no longer remembers what the music sounded like; what stuck with him was how the composer handled the story’s crucial dramatic moment, when the title character leaves his past behind.
“He becomes the Buddha in maybe the last 30 seconds of the piece or so,” Salonen explained recently, speaking by phone from Philadelphia. “And at that point, the music changes, and we hear in the last 30 seconds of that piece music that we did not hear once in the opera up until that point. And I thought, this is an absolute dramaturgical masterstroke.”
Some 30 years later, Salonen did something similar in his own Violin Concerto, a landmark work in his output as a composer that he will conduct next week with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. (It will be his first appearance with the orchestra since 1988.) As the final movement, a deeply felt Adagio called “Adieu,” winds down to near-silence, a luminous new chord emerges in the final measure, totally unrelated to the music that preceded it. It is both uncertain and charged with possibilities lying just out of sight.
That chord, said violinist Leila Josefowicz, for whom Salonen wrote the piece, “symbolizes a new chapter which he doesn’t know. It really is supposed to be a question, an enveloping ‘who knows what will happen next?’”
For Salonen, the chord is a recognition that “I have to do, at the very end, something that points forward. That is not reflecting upon what was, but something that might still come, for my own sake, if not for anything else. That’s why I wrote that chord that has nothing to do with the rest of the piece.”
The Violin Concerto, which won this year’s prestigious University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, was written at a time when Salonen was in his final season as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He stepped down in 2009, mostly because he wanted to have more time to compose and also, as he said from Philadelphia, “I felt that one should step down when things are still good.”
In fact, Salonen’s 17-year tenure was, by near-universal consent, one of the most successful conductor-orchestra partnerships in memory. He made the Philharmonic into a model of daring and innovation in an age when orchestras increasingly sought safety in the familiar. He solidified a loyal audience and helped get the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall built. Along the way, Salonen transformed himself from a reserved Finnish modernist into an exemplar of LA cool, a guy who could make the traditional experience of orchestra concerts a modern one.
“That whole season, that whole year, was very emotional for me,” he said. “Because I had been there for 17 years, and gone through sunny days and rainy days and whatever a 17-year marriage contains. It really felt like leaving a family, leaving a life that had been very good. I had hired young players and they had got married and had their children. I had seen the babies grow. It was like a huge chunk of life coming to an end.”
The Violin Concerto, while not explicitly intended as a farewell to the orchestra, was, in various ways, about endings and beginnings. Josefowicz — who will play the concerto in Boston — remembers the first performances of the piece as overwhelming experiences.
“It was his second-to-last week in LA,” she said from her New York home. “The whole place was already just totally nostalgic and loving their chef, if you will, and what he has given them over 17 years. So you can imagine how sentimental and emotionally charged this period was. I think he was definitely blown away.”
For Josefowicz, having Salonen write a piece for her was the fulfillment of a long-held dream. “I actually wrote him a fan letter, in my late teens,” said the violinist, who spent part of her childhood in Los Angeles. And while he didn’t write back, the two have worked together frequently over the years.
“We did a bunch of concerts that I now look back and think, this [concerto] was brewing in his mind. And then people were saying to him, in front of me, ‘Hey, when are you gonna write something [for her]?’ I’d be like, ‘Stole the words right out of my mouth.’ ”
Asked what Salonen is like as a person, she answered, “very, very human and very, very sensitive to things that can come up when you work together.” Josefowicz is pregnant with her second child, and the due date conflicted almost exactly with the planned date of the London premiere of the concerto. Salonen could have had another violinist step in. Instead, he postponed the performance.
“I’ve taken this piece so far with you, and that’s the way I want it to be,” Josefowicz said Salonen told her. “I wouldn’t do it another way.”
“I find him very interesting because he’s a European modernist who has embraced an emotionally expressive sensibility,” said Courtney Lewis, who conducts the Boston-based Discovery Ensemble. Long before he knew Salonen would be in Boston, Lewis programmed Salonen’s “Mania” for cello and chamber ensemble on its program for April 13. (Salonen will supervise one rehearsal of the piece.) The matching of the schedules, Lewis said, was “a wonderfully happy coincidence.
“If you think of other European modernists today, there is still almost a value judgment of selling out or even shame about being emotionally expressive. And on the other side of the coin, there can be music that can be all about emotional expressivity but loses any sense of traditional modernist rigor. And his music is both of those things.”
After leaving Los Angeles, Salonen relocated with his family to London, where he is principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra. He works with the Philharmonia between 12 and 16 weeks a year and has a contract that runs to 2014, but is free of most of the administrative and fund-raising duties that fall to most music directors of American orchestras. Salonen’s relationship with the Philharmonia goes back to his earliest conducting days, and his wife was a cellist in the orchestra when they first met. “It really is a very family-like situation,” he said. (This is, nevertheless, unlikely to quell speculation about whether he could become a candidate to succeed James Levine at the BSO.)
Of the conducting/composing balance that he had hoped to right, Salonen admitted that he’s still conducting too much. But he’s hoping to begin work on an opera soon. It is one of the few genres he has yet to work in, and he has had an idea for a libretto since 1996. He would not disclose details but said that after the Boston concerts, he had “a longish break coming. And I think after that I’ll sit down and start developing this opera thing.”
Salonen’s best work as both composer and conductor synthesizes tradition and modernity. Salonen sees our connection with the great music of the past as a rubber band – something that can either bend with our changing circumstances, or grow rigid and break.
“There’s a point when there’s a risk that it snaps,” he said. “Somehow, the distance between our lives, our reality, and that music becomes too great, and loses relevance. And I don’t want to see that day. And how do we make sure that this will not happen? I think the only way to do this is to make sure that new music is being written to kind of keep an organic connection between the past and now alive. So that there wouldn’t be a vacuum — an empty space between the masterworks of the past and what we see as reality today.
“We need composers who are not afraid to communicate with their audience,” he went on. “Composers who are willing to become a part of this organic DNA line from Bach, Beethoven, and onwards. And if I believe in anything, it is this.”
If you go...
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At: Symphony Hall, Thursday through Saturday. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org
At: Jordan Hall, April 13. 617-800-7588,
David Weininger can be reached at globeclassical