You're known as a very precise conductor, many people say that of you, but some of your colleagues in the orchestras have also said, it feels like Esa-Pekka is driving an extremely fast car on a narrow road, when you conduct. There was a quote, that you recently said on Stravinsky’s The Firebird, you said, “Well, you should push them, the orchestra, but not beyond the invisible wall beyond which things start breaking apart.” Could you talk about control and letting go?
I think my long-term experience [is] about control versus inspiration, control versus freedom, controlling versus enabling musicians. This has been one continuous learning process. I would say, that as a young conductor, I was much more interested in controlling everything; I had an illusion of my own importance in the big picture.
Of course, as you get older and you work with fantastic musicians, fantastic orchestras, you start to realize that the most important function of a leader, in that kind of context, is to enable people, to give them tools to actually do their work, do their job as they’ve been trained to do. That’s actually the one lesson I’m carrying from all those years.
Now, I must say that, I get a little pleasure out of the fact that I don’t think that I’m irreplaceable, I don’t think that I’m omnipotent. I see my role as primus inter pares, working together with extremely talented people, trying to give them impulses, and ideas and concepts, but by no means thinking that I’m on a higher level than anyone of them.
There’s another aspect to control which is, if you like self-control and music, it grabs all of us, in a way that we can’t always anticipate. Recently, you were discussing your violin concerto which was premiered in 2009 (A beautiful piece, if you haven’t heard it.) You were saying about a section, that this is a place where it’s easy to get sucked in, but you have to consciously cool down. That even the conductor can get drawn in and then you have the guy with the baton who's lost control.
Well, control is obviously important in this profession or any profession. Of course, control is not a goal in itself, we have to see control as a tool to achieve certain goals.
In music, obviously, the great classical repertoire has a very powerful emotional message, and the emotional content is very strong. As a conductor, we get very moved and very inspired by all this at all times, but we have to be wary of the centrifugal powers of this music. We don’t want to get sucked in completely because that would mean that you actually lose your ability to help the others to achieve the goal.
So, you have to keep some kind of a distance even minimally. There has to be some kind of detachment between you and the material you’re actually dealing with at any given moment.
One core thing is to keep learning, no matter how much one knows. It might be the case when you get up in front of the orchestra, you de facto know the piece better than any individual player there in some sense, you’ve prepared it and know all aspects of it, but how do you stay open to surprises and learning?
First of all, I don’t think that I’m necessarily the most profoundly talented person in the room when I conduct an orchestra. On the contrary, I’m wiling to accept the fact that statistically it’s more likely that they’re a few that would be more talented and perhaps would have more encyclopedic knowledge about the piece that we’re performing.
But that’s not the point, really. It’s more like, that I try to enable this talent, in a cohesive way, to work together in order to achieve a goal. In order to keep the situation dynamic and alive, one has to be open to impulses from the orchestra back to the conductor otherwise it would be kind of meaningless.
So, in fact, what happens is some kind of feedback loop. That I throw an idea or an impulse to the players, then they give me something back and I take it. All this happens in real-time, as it were, and intrinsically, intuitively, not necessarily rationally, but there’s this kind of feedback loop; I hear what they’re giving back to me. There might be this kind of idea, which I’m detecting, and I have to make a split-second decision whether I accept it and run with it, or whether I reject it or try to guide the musicians into a different direction.
That, of course, makes it endlessly fascinating because no day is like the previous one, no second, no one moment in that kind of music making is similar to any other moment that I have experienced before.
Therefore, now when I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years - scary number by the way! - I have realized the most profound pleasure, the greatest joy I can ever experience is the realization that I’ve learned something. And how do I learn something? I learned something from these talented, dedicated, very well-trained people I’ve worked with around the world.
In business as in music, feedback. You’ve mentioned the feedback loop even during a live performance, but as you’re getting ready for a performance, how do you give feedback? If there’s something you need to correct, and how do you take feedback?
All we all know, feedback works on very different levels. There’s the direct feedback i.e verbal, somebody says “No, I don’t think so” or somebody says “Oh, I think that’s a very good idea.” There’s this other feedback, you can read this in people’s faces, you can read it between the lines. You can tell there’s something funny about the atmosphere now, what I did or what I said wasn’t somehow taken well.
Then, in music of course, there’s this kind of feedback, where you do something, you give an impulse to the musicians and then something comes back that was not what you thought it would have been, or maybe it’s not as good as you thought it should have been. I think that’s the most profound sort of feedback I’m experiencing. That I’m expecting to hear some kind of reaction and then something else happens and then, of course, I have to make this split-second judgment whether this is actually something I accept, or reject, or something I actually think is better than what I had to offer and that makes it absolutely fascinating.
You’ve used technology in your work, perhaps the only classical composer/conductor who's been featured in a World Cup football, World Cup TV spot. Going really mainstream with the commercials together for Apple for iPad and those methods. How does technology serve in your daily work in composing?
Well, the way we use technology in classical music is basically divided into two categories. There’s, of course, the technology to distribute music i.e. through streaming and through social media using various consumer electronic methods such as iPads, iPods, tablets, what have you.
There is, of course, the other side, which is technology we use in the actual creation process of music and I use, in my composition process. I use software, I use computers, I use MIDI systems, sequencers, notation software and so on. Which is fairly normal these days, even in the so-called classical circles, we are not as hopelessly analog as people think! There’s still a lot to do, but many of us use technology and the best software available.
In order to get the message across to the larger audiences, I think we have a lot to do still. What I’ve been doing, together with my colleagues at the Philharmonic, is trying to kind of invent new ways to bring classical music, the great repertoire, the great experiences, closer to people who basically communicate with the world through touch screens and that sort of interface. The few pilots, actually quite a few of them already, have been quite successful and we are now convinced that this is the way to go and that we will develop further the concept that we started with a few years ago.
If you’d like to hear more, a little plug for the rest of the program, at 2:30 pm on the Green Stage, we start the Product Design track at Slush and Esa-Pekka and Richard Stanley, his collaborator on The Orchestra app, as well as some other installations will be giving more detail on that work.
Finally, great creative breakthroughs are often about the team you assemble. Often times, I suppose, you are meeting a team you’ve worked with for a long time or in front of a new orchestra. How do you develop talent? How do you seek new talent?
I was the Chief Conductor, or the Music Director, of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 17 years and in that capacity, I hired about 60 musicians so I have a lot of experience of trying to find the talent and then having found it, trying to nurture it and trying to guide it into the right direction.
This is an incredibly complex field, but I think it’s absolutely central for us as well as every one of you: How do we find talent, how do we encourage it, how do we nurture it, and how do we keep it within our organization? That’s also a big challenge sometimes, when the most talented people, of course, have a lot of demand around the world. How do we keep them motivated, how do we make sure that they can flourish in the environment we are creating so they will stay loyal to the organization and to ourselves.
Maybe the most important thing for the leader in this context is to realize that he or she is just an enabler, not some kind of all-knowing, faultless thing that would never make mistakes and instead would lay out fantastic strategies that would take the organization to ever-new heights. It doesn’t work this way. I think what we do is really to give impulses, ideas, and try to make sure that everyone within the organization feels that he or she has been seen, has been noted, and is supported in whatever the goals of the organization are.