Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Future of Classical Music

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about how the Canadian composer Yannick Nezet-Seguin’s appointment to the Metropolitan Opera was a significant moment for classical music because he is one of the few openly gay conductors of major orchestras. This past Sunday, I read a New York Times article by Anthony Tommasini about how the new director of the San Francisco Symphony, Esa-Pekka Salonen, is going to switch up how things are done with classical music while still sticking to a lot of the traditions associated with the genre.

Esa-Pekka Salonen is a Finnish conductor who is trying to change how orchestras market themselves to the public. When he participated in a discussion about the future of classical music at New York University he groaned because the professor facilitating the discussion was a philosophy professor talking about the pessimistic future of symphony orchestras: their lack of funding, too many old people in the audiences of these orchestra concerts, young people not caring about classical music, the usual cynical stuff. As a young musician who majored in philosophy, this struck me as a little sad that someone would think like that because I still love classical music and have found ways to integrate my love of philosophy with my music. Also, if classical music was doomed, orchestras still wouldn’t be mailing out those glossy subscription fliers to our houses. Music itself is a philosophy. But I digress.

Before Mr. Salonen came along, the conductor Pierre Boulez once said that “the only solution to the entrenched conservatism of classical music is to blow up the opera houses and destroy all of the art of the past.” However, Boulez ended up not going through with this plan and instead deciding to find constructive ways to innovate orchestras. Salonen says that he doesn’t have a problem with the music itself; orchestras should still play Brahms and Bach and all the old European standards, in addition to performing contemporary music. We also shouldn’t have to treat the future of classical music like a Die Hard film and blow stuff up (cue the Doomsday music).

However, the environments in which these orchestras play this music are often intimidating and off-putting for many people who want to go to concerts without feeling pressured to dress up in fancy clothes. According to Tommasini:

Mr. Salonen has more problems with the promotion of classical music than with its substance. The message he said is often conveyed–“Come and hear an immortal masterpiece performed by Maestro So-and-So and a great symphony orchestra”–is actually off-putting. “Lots of concert halls look like shrines or temples, like a Parthenon,” he added. “You climb up to make yourself worthy” and “walk out a better person”.

“Esa-Pekka Salonen Goes Off ‘the Grid’

It’s why sadly I haven’t been to a lot of classical music concerts for these past few years, even though I am a classical musician. I did when I was younger and in college while I played in the school orchestra, but as I got older I got busy with work and other activities so going to a classical concert seemed like a huge investment to me (then again, any famous musician’s concert is going to be expensive. As much as I wanted to go see P!nk in concert, I have a specific savings goal and didn’t want to spend too much on a ticket if I knew my sensitive ears weren’t going to be able to take the 130-something decibels in that auditorium). After a while I lost touch with the ambiance of classical music listening and only listen to it when I practice it or when I listen to it on the radio.

Salonen seeks to change that by having the concert season broken into smaller chunks so that people don’t have to make these extravagant plans well in advance to simply go and hear some great-sounding music. He also seeks to reach out to as many musical tastes as possible since our musical palate nowadays is so beautifully diverse. And, moreover, he wants to recruit younger artists such as the amazingly talented bassist Esperanza Spalding. This is actually one of the few times I have heard of a conductor going to such great lengths to include younger artists in the concert season, but maybe that is because I haven’t been to enough concerts to know. Basically Esa-Pekka Salonen is trying to make the orchestra less insular and more accessible to the community. I myself have been thinking about this issue for a long time: how can we make classical music accessible while still keeping the opera houses and symphony halls?

Anyway, I am very excited for what this guy is going to bring to the table. 🙂


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