BORN: June 30, 1958. Helsinki, Finland. Currently divides his time between continents, with a home base in Finland
COMPOSED: Salonen composed Helix in 2005 on a commission from the BBC Proms for Valery Gergiev and the World Orchestra for Peace, to whom he dedicated the score
WORLD PREMIERE: August 27, 2005. Valery Gergiev conducted the World Orchestra for Peace at the Royal Albert Hall, as part of the BBC Proms in London
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY—At these performances
INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 5 percussionists, harp, and strings
DURATION: About 9 mins
THE BACKSTORY When a commissioning party asks Esa-Pekka Salonen to write a short concert opener, they know they are guaranteed something out of the ordinary—and something that will provide the orchestra and audience alike with a thrilling musical experience. In 2005, the Finnish conductor agreed to write such a piece for a BBC Proms concert featuring his colleague Valery Gergiev and the transnational World Orchestra for Peace (founded by Sir Georg Solti in 1995; Gergiev took on the rein in 1997). Salonen was in an ideal position for the task since, in his “other” musical career as a star conductor himself, he had accumulated many years of practical wisdom about the mechanics of orchestration, texture, and pacing. He also had a couple of seasons under his belt working with the acoustics of then-still-new Walt Disney Concert Hall, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which he helmed from 1992 to 2009.
Salonen’s life as a composer-conductor evokes something of an older musical paradigm much less in evidence in our era of specialization. As a young artist he initially set out on the path of being a composer. A student of Einojuhani Rautavaara at the Sibelius Academy in his native Helsinki, Salonen joined with his peers Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg to found an experimental group called Korvat Auki! (“Ears Open!”). Those years of adventurous discovery may have been typical of a youthful disposition, but Salonen has remained true to the faith he and his fellow musicians proclaimed: that music should be an ear-opening experience that can transform our perceptions of the world.
A bit of unexpected success got in the way of the full-time composing career he intended. Salonen had taken up conducting as a side project to equip himself with the tools to be able to advocate for his own music. In 1983, the young Finn was asked to step in for Michael Tilson Thomas at the last minute to conduct the London-based Philharmonia Orchestra in Mahler’s Third Symphony. The performance was so well-received that it opened the door to Salonen’s tenure with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which is now recognized as a significant chapter in American orchestral life.
Salonen decided to leave that post to focus more intensely on his composition. This season, for example, he is completing a three-year residency as composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic. But Salonen continues to lead a highly active career as a conductor. He is back with London’s Philharmonia as Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor and is planning to conduct his first complete Ring cycle in future seasons at Finnish National Opera and Ballet.
THE MUSIC Salonen has earned particular acclaim for his concertos, including his 2009 Violin Concerto (winner of the 2012 Grawemeyer Award) and a new Cello Concerto for Yo-Yo Ma, introduced in 2017. Within its brief timespan, Helix offers a glimpse into the orchestral sonic universe of this composer, manifesting both mastery of technique—which requires utmost mastery to perform—and untrammeled imagination. While setting out to write “a celebratory and direct overture-like piece,” Salonen points out that he determined that the composition “nevertheless be very rigidly structured, and based on essentially one continuous process.” Constructing a viable orchestral work of brief duration is arguably more difficult than writing a longer piece—unless the goal is merely contributing a bit of sonic glitter, another in-one-ear-out-the-other bonbon. The challenge is, perhaps, comparable to that of the short story versus the novel—there is much less “space” to present and develop material so that it makes a maximal impression.
Helix integrates a remarkable palette of colors with an original formal design.
Corresponding to the title he chose, Salonen describes that form as “a spiral or a coil; or, more academically, a curve that lies on a cone and makes a constant angle with the straight lines parallel to the base of the cone.” The form and process of the piece are the same: a virtuoso study in gradually accelerated tempo (as the composer puts it, “a nine-minute accelerando”).
But as the tempo accelerates, the written note values elongate in tandem. “Therefore, only the material’s relation to the pulse changes, not necessarily the impression of speed itself,” according to Salonen. “Hence the spiral metaphor: the material (which consists essentially of two different phrases) is being pushed through constantly narrowing concentric circles until the music reaches a point where it has to stop as it has nowhere to go.” If the early nineteenth century gave us the Rossini crescendo, the early twenty-first is the era of the Salonen accelerando.
Along the way, that entails an astonishingly varied stream of musical scenery, beginning with mysterious, almost archaic sounds that might be at home in the ceremonial world of Boris Godunov. A fascinating dialogue for piccolo and contrabassoon leads to other tangents; at one point, a giddy roulade hints at the mania underlying the process, despite its rigidly controlled structure. The pulse becomes a noose tightening, until the score’s final instruction: “End completely abruptly: Dampen all ringing sounds.”
Thomas May is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.
MORE ABOUT THE MUSIC
Recordings: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)
Reading: The entry on Esa-Pekka Salonen by Charles Barber and Ilkka Oramo in the Second Edition of The New Grove is a good introduction
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