A Tribute to Esa-Pekka Salonen

Esa-Pekka Salonen on rehearsal

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.

Esa-Pekka Salonen in rehearsal

“[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

Cathedral concert at Three Choirs Festival, seen through a window shaped like a clover

Duruflé Requiem

Geraint Bowen – conductor
Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir

  • Fauré Cantique de Jean Racine
  • Williams Sea Sketches
  • Duruflé Requiem
Worcester Cathedral

Drawing of Gaspard the Fox running through grass, buildings in the background
Family concert

Gaspard's Foxtrot

Alice Farnham – conductor
Zeb Soanes – author/narrator
James Mayhew – live illustration

  • Prokofiev Peter and the Wolf, arr. David Matthews
  • Jonathan Dove Gaspard's Foxtrot (world premiere concert performance)
Rogers Theatre, Malvern

Photo of Philharmonia cellist Timothy Walden

Britten: Saint Nicolas

Samuel Hudson – conductor
Joshua Ellicott – tenor
Worcester Cathedral Choir

  • Dobrinka Tabakova Centuries of Meditations
  • John Rutter Visions
  • Britten Saint Nicolas
Worcester Cathedral

Photo of cellist Guy Johnston

Howells and Gibbs

Samuel Hudson – conductor (Ireland and Howells)
Adrian Partington – conductor (Gibbs)
Guy Johnston – cello
Božidar Smiljanić – baritone
Three Choirs Festival Chorus

  • Ireland The Forgotten Rite
  • Howells Cello Concerto
  • Gibbs Symphony No. 2
Worcester Cathedral

Streamed from Southbank Centre

Online concerts from our London home


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