Sep 20, 2017

Esa-Pekka Salonen: Meet the Obsidian Tear Composer


Photo credit: Benjamin Suomela

Get to know world-renowned composer Esa-Pekka Salonen whose powerful compositions, Lachen verlernt and Nyx, inspired Wayne McGregor’s newest ballet.

Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega

Photo credit: Nicolas Brodard

Esa-Pekka Salonen is “one of our most thoughtful composers and probing conductors” (John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune). He serves as the Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor for London’s Philharmonia Orchestra and Conductor Laureate for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he was previously the Music Director from 1992 to 2009. He is also Composer-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic, Artist in Association at the Finnish National Opera and Ballet, and co-founder of the annual Baltic Sea Festival.

Salonen strives to innovate and reposition classical music in the 21st century. As Music Director of the L.A. Philharmonic for 17 years, he was credited with revitalizing the organization, making it one of the best-attended orchestras in the U.S.

He was a driving force behind the development of “THE ORCHESTRA,” an iPad app which allows the user unparalleled access to eight symphonic works with commentary by Salonen himself. He also serves as an artistic advisor to the SYNC PROJECT, a global experiment using music to improve health and well-being by studying how the structural properties of music affect biometrics such as heart rate, brain activity, and sleep patterns.

In what was described as “twin forces of nature coming together” (John von Rhein, CHICAGO TRIBUNE), Salonen recently composed a Cello Concerto for renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, which saw its world premiere at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in March.

In May 2016, Salonen conducted the Royal Opera House orchestra for the world premiere of McGregor’s Obsidian Tear. His compositions Lachen verlernt and Nyx serve as the perfect accompaniment for McGregor’s tender yet potent movement.

“Esa-Pekka is one of my national heroes,” said Boston Ballet Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen. “I’ve been a huge fan ever since he conducted performances of Giselle at the Finnish National Ballet when I was 16, and I’ve watched him build a sensational international career. I’m excited to see his music embodied in Wayne’s brilliant, powerful choreography this fall.”

Photo credit: Minna Hatinen, Finnish National Opera and Ballet


Like Nissinen, McGregor had listened to Salonen’s music and followed his career for years. He had previously choreographed a ballet to Salonen’s score Foreign Bodies in 2010. “I’m a fan of Esa-Pekka, and I think that’s how it starts,” said McGregor in an INTERVIEW WITH THE ROYAL BALLET. “You find something that really inspires you, makes you want to get into the studio and make something, and those are the people you want to work with, people who really fire your imagination.” When McGregor heard the premiere of Salonen’s Nyx in Paris in 2011, he was awed by the overwhelming power, physicality, and seductiveness of the piece, so he asked Salonen to save the music for him to choreograph.

According to Russell Platt of THE NEW YORKER, Salonen’s “greatest strength as a composer is as an orchestrator: he not only selects and combines instrumental colors in a precise and radiant manner but deploys them with enormous physical energy.” It was this intense physicality that also inspired McGregor to choreograph to Salonen’s music.

Many musicians consider their instruments to be an extension of their bodies, and Salonen keeps this physical component in mind when he composes. “From this to actual dance, it’s a very short step because the body is the instrument, and the instrument is not the extension of the body but the body itself is the instrument,” said Salonen in an interview with The Royal Ballet.

Salonen had been fascinated by Nyx, the Greek goddess of night, for many years because her story and genesis are mostly unknown. According to Greek mythology, Nyx is an ancient deity shrouded in a veil of shadowy mists who is said to have spawned dark spirits, including Sleep, Darkness, Death, and Retribution, as well as Brightness, Day, and Eros. It is this ambiguity and shadowiness that Salonen explores in his orchestration. As THE NEW YORK TIMES classical music critic David Allen notes, “Mr. Salonen revels in the aural possibilities of a full orchestra, and ‘Nyx’ stomps around with teeming complexity. Arguably, it’s most evocative when most tender.” In Obsidian Tear, McGregor has juxtaposed Nyx—its power, grandeur, and sensuality— with Salonen’s Lachen verlernt, a piercing, melancholy solo for violin.

You can listen to Salonen’s score HERE, along with other music on the program by Jean Sibelius. We are excited to kick off our 2017–2018 season with Obsidian Tear (Nov 3–12) and share this thrilling marriage of sight and sound with you.