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Esa-Pekka Salonen back  — in a different context

Der finnische Dirigent Esa-PekkSalonen aufgeommen am 28.02.2005 Helsinki. Foto: JUSSI NUKARI +++(c) dp- Report+++

Der finnische Dirigent Esa-Pekka Salonen, aufgeommen am 28.02.2005 in Helsinki. Foto: JUSSI NUKARI +++(c) dpa - Report+++

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Esa-Pekka Salonen

With the Philharmonia orchestra

◆ 8 p.m. Wednesday

◆ Symphony Center,
220 S. Michigan

◆ Tickets, $25-$183

◆ (312) 294-3000,

Updated: December 5, 2012 6:18AM

Since first making a splash with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1988, Esa-Pekka Salonen has become a frequent guest conductor here .

This week, though, audiences will get a chance to experience the renowned Finnish maestro in an entirely different context, when he leads the London-based Philharmonia Orchestra, in its first Chicago concert since 1980, Wednesday in Symphony Center. The concert is part of an ambitious cross-country tour that begins Tuesday in Urbana-Champaign and ends Nov. 19 in New York City.

The program consists of Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique” and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 — masterworks written by young composers who were “blowing up the existing models.”

The finale of the Second Symphony contains what Salonen calls one of his Top 10 moments in all classical music: a soft, six-bar passage that is interrupted with an explosive B flat-seventh chord.

“Of course,” he said, “I’ve heard this particular moment a hundred times and conducted it very many times. Every time I hear it, every time I come to that point in that symphony, it fills me with joy and excitement.”

Salonen, 54, a graduate of Finland’s Sibelius Academy, which has produced a stream of well-respected conductors like Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Osmo Vanska, first led the Philharmonia in 1983. At 25, he jumped in as a last-minute substitute and established an immediate bond with the group.

“It was the first major, international orchestra that gave me a big break,” he said. “It’s a very familiar and warm relationship but also musically very alive and exciting. So I’m very happy with them.”

As music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1992 through 2009, Salonen helped spur the construction of Walt Disney Concert Hall and gave the orchestra a hip, progressive vibe that significantly boosted its popularity.

Since becoming principal conductor and artistic adviser of the Philharmonia four years ago, he has sparked a range of innovative initiatives with that orchestra as well. Among them are annual festivals tied to important 20th-century musical figures and periods, such as the 2009 series “City of Dreams: Vienna, 1900-1935.”

In 2013, the orchestra will mark the birth centennial of Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, an important mentor and friend to Salonen, with a series titled “Woven Words.”

Although the Concerto for Orchestra and Symphony No. 3 are still regularly performed, many of the composer’s other major works are not heard as much as they were at the peak of his popularity in the 1970s and ’80s. Salonen hopes the centenary will bring renewed attention to his accomplishments.

“It’s kind of coming back now,” he said. “I’m really hoping that the anniversary and my project, among lots of other things that are happening around the world, will make sure that he enters the repertoire again and will be frequently played as he deserves to be.”

When Salonen stepped down from the L.A. Phil, he cited a desire to spend more time composing. So far, that wish has not been entirely fulfilled, in part due to time-consuming opera engagements. Next year, though, he believes he will achieve the equilibrium he seeks, with conducting taking a little less than half of his schedule.

“I see this as a somewhat flexible arrangement, where there are years or seasons when I conduct more, and there are seasons when I compose more,” he said. “Most likely, this is going to be the case as long as I’m able to work in any capacity.”

Although Salonen has not finished a new work since last year, he has several in the pipeline. “Out of Nowhere” (2012), a recording of two of his most recent compositions, features “NYX” and his Violin Concerto with Leila Josefowicz as soloist.

Given his success in Los Angeles and London, Salonen would seem to be a strong candidate for another conducting post. Indeed, it is hard to believe that the Boston Symphony — historically regarded as one of the top five U.S. orchestras — has not considered him to fill its current music director vacancy.

Salonen is not ruling out the possibility, but it would be difficult for any American conducting position to top what he called the “unbelievable ride” he had in Los Angeles.

“It’s very hard for me to imagine having another experience like that in terms of being a music director in the States,” he said. “But who knows what happens in life?”

Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer.

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