Thursday, January 19, 2006


Los Angeles, although not my favorite place to live in, has for almost forty years had a special place in my life. It was there in 1967 that I started my American experience and moved back there with my family from Scandinavia a decade later. I still have a daughter living there with her family, working as a geriatrist at UCLA. My first grandchild will be having her first birthday celebration next month.

A home for many famous and excellent musicians, L.A. never was known for having an important musical life as far as orchestras and opera were concerned. Most of the talent were busy working for in the studio scene. Decades ago, movie scores were demanding and difficult; much of the great American composing happened there. Of course, much of that is history today, as soundtracks have become more like sound effects and have lost their importance as an art form. The Philharmonic in that city was never considered a 'serious' first class orchestra. Many of their musicians were all too happy to augment their income in the studios. I can remember a principal string player doing a double session at Warner Bros. on a day when he was featured as the soloist of his orchestra the same night. One of the violinists carrying a 'concertmaster' title called in sick for a rehearsal, just to show up in the same building, and at the same time, to play the Academy Awards. That is how seriously people took the orchestra.

Things have changed a lot in recent years, however. There is an excellent long article in last Sunday's New York Times, titled 'Continental Shift'. In it, Allan Kozinn writes that the L.A. Philharmonic "tops the list of America's premier orchestras and serves as a lesson in how to update an august cultural institution without cheapening its work." There are two reasons that I can think of: the orchestra got rid of some of its less capable musicians, either through retirement or other means, and hired a new Music Director, a fellow Finn Esa-Pekka Salonen. Having a great new hall doesn't hurt either, but the orchestra was rapidly improving before they moved to their new home.

This conductor is an interesting case. Back in Finland years ago, he wasn't #1 on the list of local favorites. Then came a sensational London breakthrough as a last-minute substitute and the rest is history. Of course, now my country treats him as their hero and most of the 'great promises' from time before there have faded to the background. Of course this is typical to the human nature: no one is a prophet in his own land, at least to start with. Interestingly, to quote the article, "One reason Mr. Salonen stands out among this country's music directors is that he never wanted to be one. His first love was, and is, composition; he studied conducting during his student years at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, mainly so he could lead performances with Ears Open, an avant-garde collective." This is almost never the situation in this country: often serious musician-conductors shy away from such positions, and they are taken by people by people that like to be in control, whether they are good conductors or not.

Of course there are a lot of people who don't agree with the claim that our musical capital has moved to Los Angeles, but one has to admire all the development in Smogville. As the city's population structure is moving away from being white-dominated, one would expect classical music becoming an endangered spieces, much like in San Diego, just a two-hour drive south. But the opposite seems to have happened, and not only is the orchestra doing well, so is the local opera company.

Next time I fly down to see my family, I just might go to a concert, something I don't normally like to do.