Classical: World series of classics overflow the Bowl

Under its Finnish conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, LA's local orchestra is trying to take its music to the masses.
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The Independent Culture
Los Angeles, traditionally a bed of celluloid dreams, has a local philharmonic orchestra with an enviable artistic pedigree. Otto Klemperer conducted it, so did Andre Previn and Carlo Maria Giulini. And now the gifted 40-year-old Finn Esa-Pekka Salonen traces a seamless line through a wide range of repertoire, from Bruckner and Strauss to his own LA Variations, which he conducts at the Proms on Monday night.

"It's a 20-minute orchestral piece written specifically for my players," he told me in his Spartan Hollywood Bowl dressing room. "I tried to compose something that was more musically challenging than just a show-case; but I admit that I am very interested in instrumental virtuosity, and I enjoy the energy that 105 talented people create when they court danger in performance."

Fresh as Nordic air but with a laser-like intelligence, Salonen charts the precise position that the Philharmonic has secured in LA's cultural life. "Being the artistic director of a symphony orchestra in a place like Southern California is a bit like being part of a contra-culture," he confesses. "If I was active in, say, Boston or Munich, I would definitely be part of the cultural mainstream. Here, `mainstream culture' is very clearly the entertainment industry, and it is for that reason that we have a lot of support from the people. We represent the `other' LA. It's the kind of image that local people like to give to the rest of the world - in other words, more intellectually ambitious than the movie theatres."

A relentless publicity campaign has made Salonen something of a local celebrity. "People stop me in the street;" he admits, with more pragmatism than pride, "and even people who do not consume classical music in any form thank me for what I am doing for the city. They feel that this is a constructive process. Music doesn't cannibalise anything the way the entertainment business does, and classical repertoire has the potential to heal, to unite." Salonen enjoys what he calls the "flexibility of thought" in Los Angeles, the lack of prejudice and the "welcoming" quality of the people who live there. "A Finn in this culture is something rather odd," he ponders, "and it took me many years to get used to certain aspects of it. The wordiness, for example. Finns usually don't say much unless it's something important, but here you have to communicate all the time just in order to exist. But I've got used to it now; in fact, I really enjoy it."

Salonen sees no basic conflict "between the music and the people. The problem is always about access and opportunity. And sometimes, things happen that are very moving. Last spring, we held a concert in San Pedro, a fairly depressed harbour town between here and Long Beach. The townspeople had cleared the entire city and renovated an old theatre just for our visit and, after the concert, held a fiesta where everybody was invited. I was completely overwhelmed by their response to what we played. It seemed so important for them - not only as a concert, but as a symbol: they were suddenly elevated to the ranks of `real cities'. It's incredible how certain things work in every culture here. Beethoven always gets across somehow. I mean, his feel for freedom, the battle and victory of the constructive over the destructive. There's a basic dialectic in Beet-hoven's music that transmits itself to people who don't necessarily have any previous experience of serious music."

Downtown at the Philharmonic's head office, Willem Wijnbergen, the orchestra's current executive vice-president and managing director, takes a slightly different view. "We have to do much more than play a great Beethoven symphony," he says emphatically. "Our role, first and foremost, is to reach a diverse community, explain ourselves to them, help them appreciate, and hope that we can grow them into a natural audience for what we have to offer." Wijnbergen's film-star looks and unstoppable enthusiasm are very much the stuff of Hollywood, but he too has an impressive pedigree, principally a successful six-year stint of marketing and fund-raising for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra back in his native Holland. He reminisces about the Concertgebouw's tradition. "They have found their role in life," he affirms, "and I have a feeling that in 50 years from now, that role will still be the same. But in LA, although we have a top-ranking orchestra, the environment is radically different to anything we're used to in Europe." It is a city where 13 million people share upwards of 40 languages. "A lot of them don't even speak English. Almost 50 per cent of the population is Latino; a large part is Asian; a smaller part is black American, and then there is this little white group which we say is our traditional audience. That small community has supported the orchestra both financially and as patrons; but the whole landscape is changing dramatically, in its leadership and in its demographic make-up, so unless we tap into that change, we'll run out of business within 10, maybe 20 years."

Wijnbergen's strategy is striking but simple. There will be a jazz series at the Bowl, with pre-season concerts in surrounding neighbourhoods, "even the rough neighbourhoods". The idea is to lead black Americans into the "Philharmonic family", "bring them to the Bowl, make sure we put on a great show and give them a feeling of belonging". But what about all the other minorities? No problem. "We'll start a Sunday `World Music' series. I've found a programmer who can come up with concerts of Cuban, Armenian and Gypsy music. The sky's the limit, not only because of our cultural diversity, but because there is so much money here: great ideas get support and people have no preconceptions about keeping things the way they are."

But what if these cultures are not interested in the Philharmonic or the Hollywood Bowl? Easy. "Right now, I'm building mobile stages for the orchestra. All we have to do is to go into a neighbourhood, pull out the track, put the Philharmonic on it, and give a concert!" By 2002 there will be a third option in the glitzy new Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, currently on show in miniature at the Music Centre. Even the Bowl itself will transform. "We'll change it back to the way it once was," Wijnbergen announces, strolling towards a large plan on his office wall. "At the moment, it's a patchwork of styles. But we'll strip away the patchwork and build a new shell. It'll be a streamline style, back to American Art Deco. I want it to be the most beautiful place in Southern California!"

The LA Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen appears at the Proms on Monday 31 August and Tuesday 1 September

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