A Tribute to Esa-Pekka Salonen

Cashmere sweaters or gin and tonics? President of the Philharmonia Kira Doherty writes about Esa-Pekka Salonen’s tenure with the orchestra, ahead of the first instalment of his farewell concerts, coming up  on Friday 4 June.

Read the concert’s full programme notes.

“Relationships like these between conductor and orchestra are rare, and although these final concerts feel as if a chapter is closing, the Philharmonia/Salonen relationship is far from over…”

Usually when I go and speak to conductors after a Philharmonia concert, we talk about the music, the players and about future plans. They are often chatty and satisfied, and happily beaming after particularly good performances. When I speak to Salonen though, I never know what to expect…

“Good concert tonight, Maestro. Did you enjoy it?”

“Yes. It was a good one tonight. Listen, I’d like to book some karaoke for tomorrow night. Do you think you could help me with that?”

“Um… yes of course. How many people would it be for?”

“A hundred-ish.”

To be fair, this was the last night of a two-week tour of Japan, where the Philharmonia had travelled the length of the country performing Mahler, Beethoven and Strauss. But this sort of spontaneous generosity from Salonen was not out of the ordinary; in fact it was representative of his longstanding relationship with the players, and the close camaraderie that he fostered throughout his tenure.

“[Salonen] enables the orchestra to be its true self, and together we follow where he leads”.

“How about a drink somewhere near the hall after the show?” This time we were performing at the Auditorio Nacional de Música in Madrid, where the only bars in the vicinity were decidedly spit-and-sawdust. After the end of the concert, however, Esa-Pekka and a group of us piled in to the best-looking one, and spent an enjoyable evening drinking cheerful, goldfish bowl-sized gin and tonics, and munching on complimentary saucers of peanuts.

For a group of players used to maestros draping cashmere sweaters over their shoulders and keeping well away from the playing troops, Salonen broke the mould, and in so doing accomplished what very few principal conductors manage to do.

You see, principal conductors almost always fall into two categories: those who remain frustratingly elusive and isolated from the players, and those who become overly familiar, often at the risk of breeding what familiarity breeds. Yet Salonen managed to avoid both of these pitfalls during his time as Principal Conductor, becoming a close and beloved member of the Philharmonia family whilst always maintaining the highest levels of respect on the podium from the players.

If one wants to understand the source of the success behind this relationship, it is not in small part due to this sense of closeness and rapport coupled with exacting standards and musical integrity. It is a relationship built on trust and mutual respect, which makes us feel able to take risks and push boundaries (or to put it in more colloquial terms, he is always there to save our derrière when things get interesting and, very occasionally, we his).

There are so many conductors who will to seek to control an orchestra, to impose their vision, or to shape the orchestra in their image. But playing for Salonen is different: he enables the orchestra to be its true self, and together we follow where he leads.

Relationships like these between conductor and orchestra are rare, and although these final concerts feel as if a chapter is closing, the Philharmonia/Salonen relationship is far from over, and we will already be looking forward to seeing our old friend back on the podium before too long, and to buying him a large gin and tonic afterwards (with complimentary peanuts, of course).

Upcoming concerts

View from the pit of Garsington Opera, orchestra in the foreground, audience in the back

Garsington Opera: Der Rosenkavalier

Performers include:
Jordan de Souza – conductor
Miah Persson – soprano (Marschallin)
Hanna Hipp – mezzo soprano (Octavian)
Derrick Ballard – bass baritone (Ochs)

R STRAUSS Der Rosenkavalier

Garsington Opera, Stokenchurch

Online concert

Salonen: the finale I, with Yefim Bronfman

Esa-Pekka Salonen – conductor
Yefim Bronfman – piano

  • Beethoven Symphony No. 1
  • Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2
  • Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments
  • Sibelius Symphony No. 7

Online concert

Salonen: the finale II, with Mitsuko Uchida

Esa-Pekka Salonen – conductor
Mitsuko Uchida – piano
Benjamin Marquise Gilmore – violin

  • Bach arr. Klemperer 'Bist du bei mir'
  • Bach arr. Webern Ricercata 2 a 6 voci
  • Bach arr. Berio Contrapunctus XIX
  • Bach Prelude from Partita No. 3 in E major for solo violin BWV 1006.1
  • Esa-Pekka Salonen Fog (World premiere, version for orchestra)
  • Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3

Garsington Opera's Eugene Onegin

Garsington Opera: Eugene Onegin

Performers include:
Douglas Boyd – conductor
Jonathan McGovern – tenor (Eugene Onegin)
Natalia Tanasii – soprano (Tatyana)
Sam Furness – tenor (Lenski)


Garsington Opera, Stokenchurch

Streamed from Southbank Centre

Online concerts from our London home


View events