The classical connection

The classical connection

World-renowned conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen believes classical music inspires leadership. Read on to see what’s the connection.

Text: Lotta Heikkeri Photo: Benjamin Suomela, Benjamin Ealovega, Nicolas Brodard

What do today’s aspiring musicians have in common with the early 20th century adventurers Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott?

The sense of exploration and discovery, says Esa-Pekka Salonen. The cosmopolitan conductor and composer is spending the summer in his home country of Finland. Dressed in black, Salonen arrives at the Helsinki Music Centre to talk about his latest project - a joint orchestra comprising students from two schools, the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and the Juilliard School in New York.

The musicians will rehearse pieces from Steven Stucky, Jean Sibelius and Salonen himself before embarking on a concert tour across Helsinki, Stockholm and New York. While Salonen has conducted this music hundreds, if not thousands of times, it continues to be new to the young talent.

He talks enthusiastically about how the up and coming musicians interpret what is said between the lines of the notations.

“Suddenly, things sound new to me again. And that’s the best thing that can happen,” muses the conductor.

Working with young musicians gives a lot of energy to the seasoned conductor, who is currently the Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor for London’s Philharmonia Orchestra.

The joint orchestra project, sponsored by Wärtsilä, is part of Finland’s one hundredth anniversary celebrations. Salonen says he wants to give something back to the system that made it possible for him to be where he is now. In his alma mater Sibelius Academy, he originally studied horn and composing, before he coincidentally ended taking up conducting.

“With this project, I also wanted to show off the very high level of music education in our country.”

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Lessons in leadership

Salonen rose to international fame when he worked as the conductor and music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra from 1992 to 2009. Under his leadership, the orchestra grew to become one of the most respected and admired in its country.

When talking about his work, Salonen keeps referring to realms outside his profession: to the world events, business – and quite often sports. When asked about what it takes to become a successful conductor, he compares conducting to competing in track and field. In shot put and running, the task at hand and determining the winner are quite straightforward, but in music it’s more complicated than that.

“There is no clear criteria. Everybody approaches conducting from a slightly different point of view.”

Salonen believes a good conductor needs a wide set of skills, both musically and in relation to people management. A conductor needs to understand complex information, like the sheet music that can include hundreds of items. You must have communicating skills to convey your interpretation to the musicians. You also need to inspire the players to “create something that is more than the sum of its parts,” he explains.

These are qualities often associated with successful leaders in business life. Salonen compares his work to being the head of a medium-sized company. What he believes he shares with most of the modern-day CEOs is a point of view that the process – the protocols and conventions – is not as significant as the goal.

“It’s more important to enable people to work for you, motivate them to grow, to be curious and independent, to be strong and work together. I think the only way to do this is to describe the goal and show a way to achieve it.”

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Saying no to compartmentalisation

Salonen is also an applauded composer. One of the reasons that originally led him to become a conductor was the fact that there were no professional conductors around to take up the music from an unknown and under-aged composer.

When talking about the differences between his two lines of work, he again refers to sports. Conducting and composing require different kind of energy management, the former of a sprinter and the latter of a long-distance runner.

“Imagine if Usain Bolt was asked to run a marathon. He could do it, but it would take time for him to slow down”, he explains why he needs to allow himself enough time to switch between the two tasks.

In his music, he draws inspiration from everywhere: different forms of art and culture, even news.

“It’s not the sort of romantic idea of a lonely artist walking in the oak forests in Schwartzwald and getting divine ideas in his head,” he describes with a smirk. “Though as I get older, nature matters to me more and more.”

One of the environmental causes close to his heart is the Baltic Sea. He has co-founded the annual Baltic Sea Festival, which alongside music raises awareness on the state of the sea. Salonen says he understands the feeling of helplessness people can have when faced with climate change and other environmental issues.

“All these things seem far too enormous and far too complex for any individual to do anything about. I decided to choose one segment, one specific thing I wanted to work for, and that was the Baltic.”

For Salonen, being a conductor and a composer and being an environmental advocate go hand-in-hand. He believes we must stop thinking about life and the society in compartments. The economy, education, environment and culture are not separate entities, but interconnected.

“Life becomes meaningless in any society the moment any of these compartments suffer,” he says. “In order to have a functioning economy, we need a functioning environment and functioning education. In order to give meaning to any of this, we need functioning art education and arts that are approachable and within reach of the citizens.”

The Sibelius Academy and Juilliard School joint orchestra on tour:

August 26, Helsinki

August 28, Stockholm

September 5, New York

Listen to the full interview on Wärtsilä radio.

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