‘Woven Words’ Celebrates Lutoslawski: Salonen reflects on mentor’s symphonies

Music historians will remember Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) as one of the greatest symphonists of the 20th century. The Los Angeles Philharmonic remembers him as a partner, an artistic collaborator and a regular part of the orchestra’s programming.
November 21, 2012

Music historians will remember Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) as one of the greatest symphonists of the 20th century. The Los Angeles Philharmonic remembers him as a partner, an artistic collaborator and a regular part of the orchestra’s programming.  

More than that, though, Esa-Pekka Salonen, who served as the L.A. Philharmonic’s music director for 17 years and now is its conductor laureate, remembers Lutoslawski as a longtime friend and artistic mentor.

“He wasn’t technically a teacher because he didn’t have students, but he was a very powerful musical influence in my life,” said Salonen. “He’s been gone for 20 years almost, and I still miss him, and I think of him, if not daily, at least every week.

“There are moments when I would so like him to see something I’ve done, and I would love to get his opinion and criticism and perhaps even approving words from time to time,” Salonen said. “That would be great.”

Instead, it’s Salonen who is uttering the words of praise as part of a worldwide celebration of Lutoslawski, who conducted the L.A. Philharmonic several times, including the 1993 world premiere of his Symphony No. 4, which the Philharmonic commissioned. 

London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, where Salonen currently serves as principal conductor and artistic adviser, has launched a Lutoslawski centenary project titled “Woven Words: Music Begins Where Words End.” “Woven Words” travels the globe in 2013, and Salonen will get multiple stamps in his passport conducting concerts in London; Warsaw, Poland; Madrid, Spain; Vienna, Austria; Dresden, Germany; and Modena, Italy; between January and September of 2013.

Even before the New Year, Salonen returns to his former stomping grounds for a residency with the L.A. Philharmonic that will mark the first American concerts of the Lutoslawski centenary. At the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Salonen will conduct two programs: a Lutoslawski and Beethoven program (Nov. 30 through Dec. 2) and a Lutoslawski, Schumann and Tchaikovsky evening (Dec. 7 through Dec. 9) that also features the West Coast premiere of Salonen’s composition “Nyx.” 

Sandwiched between the two concerts on Dec. 4, Lionel Bringuier conducts the L.A. Phil New Music Group in the Green Umbrella program featuring Lutoslawski’s “Partita” and his “Chantefleurs et Chantefables,” based on the children’s poetry of Robert Desnos. Salonen’s “Homunculus” and Steven Stucky’s “Ad Parnassum” round out the evening. 

Stucky, the centenary’s series adviser, is another Lutoslawski mentee and scholar with Los Angeles ties. He was the composer-in-residence with the L.A. Philharmonic for nearly 20 years. Over the summer, Stucky and Salonen traveled to Warsaw to film a series of short biographical films about Lutoslawki’s life and works for the centenary. 

“Between Esa-Pekka and Steven Stucky, the music of Lutoslawski has really been a thread that has been woven through our seasons,” said Chad Smith, vice president of artistic planning for the L.A. Philharmonic. “Lots of composer centenaries and anniversaries happen each year, and we don’t always feel that’s necessarily the strongest programming impetus, to just celebrate the death or birth of someone. 

“But when we started looking at the season for 2012-13 and with Esa-Pekka’s residency, we thought it would be great to highlight this composer’s extraordinary work.”

Esa-Pekka Salonen

Lutoslawski’s life was equally remarkable. 

The composer, who was not Jewish, was forced to flee his homeland in 1915 following the German invasion of Poland during World War I. Lutoslawski’s father and uncle were executed for anti-political activities when the future composer was 5. Lutoslawski wrote his earliest compositions in 1934 and 1937 and had hoped to continue his musical studies in Paris. 

Instead, he ended up training with the Polish army and evacuating eastern Poland in 1939 during the Nazi occupation. He was imprisoned by the Wehrmacht, escaped to Warsaw and took care of his mother through the remainder of the Nazi occupation. At this point, Lutoslawski made his living performing in cafes, often appearing with his contemporary, composer and conductor Andrzej Panufnik. 

Shortly before the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, mother and son fled to the outskirts of Poland to the little town of Komorów, where Lutoslawski composed a series of canonical studies that could later be traced to his work on Symphony No. 1. 

After the war, Lutoslawski wrote jingle and folk music for Polish radio (his boss was Władysław Szpilman, the subject of Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning film “The Pianist”). But a creative life in Cold War-era Poland came with its own challenges. The Stalinist regime banned his Symphony No. 1 as being “formalist.” Lutoslawski continued with his experimental works and cemented his international reputation with “Musique Funèbre,” in memory of Béla Bartók in 1958.

While still a student, Salonen recalls hearing Lutoslawski speak and conduct in Helsinki, Finland, but he was too intimidated to speak to him. In the 1980s, Salonen was asked to work with the composer on a Lutoslawski weekend program in London, and the two men shared conducting duties. They met again in Bern, Switzerland, and the friendship was cemented.   

One of Salonen’s best memories was in 1989 when his appointment with the L.A. Philharmonic was announced. Lutoslawski, working with the L.A. Philharmonic Institute student orchestra at the time, was present at the event, and he lent some much-needed moral support to the younger conductor.

“He saw that I was completely out of my depth and needed support, and he never left my side,” said Salonen. “I had never been the subject of this kind of attention in my life with media and TV news and radio and cocktails and everything. He was practically holding my hand. 

“Those are the kinds of memories you never forget — having that kind of support from people you admire when you really need it.” 

The maestro’s contribution to the centenary will not end with the concerts; he will be taking on some other unfinished business, too. Early in his career, in 1984, Salonen recorded Lutoslawski’s Symphonies 2, 3 and 4 with the L.A. Philharmonic. During his upcoming visit, Salonen and the L.A. Philharmonic will record Symphony No. 1, and Sony Music will release the entire compilation of symphonies, 1 through 4, as a box set for the centenary in January. 

So that’s the same conductor leading the same orchestra through music by the same composer 28 years apart. With any of the same musicians?

“A few, not many, who were at those sessions in 1984,” said Salonen. “I hope so. I hope they’re keeping well.”  

Symphony No. 4 was supposed to have been part of the centenary performances at Disney Hall, but it was pulled so that Salonen could conduct Symphony No. 1 and complete the Sony box set. There’s a kind of program-changing synchronicity behind that substitution, given how Lutoslawski’s Symphony No. 4 came into the world. 

In 1989, the composer had promised a new work, but would not commit to a financial commission or a written document, not knowing when he would have the idea that would inspire the piece. 

Fast-forward to 1993 when Salonen attended a dinner in Stockholm, Sweden, during which Lutoslawski received an award from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. At that dinner, the composer told Salonen that, for his upcoming Los Angeles concert, he wanted to change the program. 

Instead of an older orchestral piece, Lutoslawski had a new symphony that he would be pleased to have the Philharmonic commission: Symphony No. 4. Commissions don’t normally come about this way, and Salonen was caught off guard.

“I almost fainted,” recalled Salonen. “I ran to find the nearest pay phone, and I called [then-Executive Director] Ernest Fleischmann and said, ‘Prepare the contract, please!’ Fleischmann told me to take it easy, he’d take care of everything, and then when I went back in, I think Lutoslawski so enjoyed seeing my bewilderment.

“A great memory,” concluded Salonen, who will make more when he takes the stage at Disney, baton in hand, to conduct the immortal music of an old friend. 

For tickets and other information, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.

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