Lionel Rolfe, music critic, says the inclusion of rock -- more commerce than music -- in the Helsinki festival underscored his opinion about its director's inferior understanding of classical music, and how this opinion developed into a dilemma
Throughout the end of the '90s I was on the horns (and strings) of a dilemma
that will tell you a lot about the classical music scene in Los Angeles.
It was with a certain amount of glee I listened to some delicious gossip
that a violinist friend had picked up while on a recent trip to Finland. He
keeps up with gossip from Finland because he lived and performed there for
Did you know that Esa-Pekka Salonen was involved in a scandal with the
Helsinki Festival (which he ran) where millions of dollars disappeared
without anyone knowing where? he asked.
My ears perked up at this word about the Los Angeles Philharmonic's
Nordic-looking musical director.
I once turned down an offer to be the music critic of the old Los Angeles
Herald-Examiner, after talking to my mother, Yaltah Menuhin, about it. She said I wouldn't want to take the job: "You'll hear so much awful music you'll get to hate music."
I already had encountered some stormy seas after writing a series about the
great musicians who lived in Los Angeles right after the Holocaust -- people
like Stravinsky, Castle-Nuevo Tedesco, Darius Milhaud and Arnold Schoenberg.
Yaltah used to concertize and tour with Michael Mann, a violinist whose
father was Thomas Mann, the great German writer whose greatest novel, Doctor Faustus, was written about Schoenberg.
Mann was not a musician himself. When he started writing Doctor Faustus, his son, then with the San Francisco Symphony, was his dad's musical advisor on the project.
Mann's book was, to put it mildly, a powerful commentary and satire on
Schoenberg. The protagonist, a composer named Leverkuhn, like Schoenberg,
created a system of atonality based on numerology, and then created music
that reflected the descent of Germany into barbarous, primeval fascism, a
theme that dominated Mann's work.
I wrote about the experience more than once, and every time I did,
Schoenberg's son, a local municipal judge, would contact the publisher and
try to get me fired from whatever publication I was writing for at the time.
Reporting musician opinion
My great sin in the series on great composers and the Holocaust was to
repeat what all the various significant musicians, many of whom used to
regularly gather in my mother's living room, thought. Almost without
exception, they thought Schoenberg a fraud, and worse. Their sentiments were
summed up best by Ernest Gold, a Viennese film composer best known for the
music to the movie Exodus, who said Schoenberg's problem was he didn't
"know no good tunes" and that's why he had to create a system to compose by.
After 50 years Schoenberg made it big, audiences can't sit through a performance of his stuff.
Anyway my dilemma was that Esa-Pekka Salonen particularly rubbed me the
wrong way. I had heard him on the radio conduct some Brahms, and I actually
was angry. It wasn't only that he didn't understand it or feel it, he was
simply disinterested. It didnšt speak to him, or to his audience.
When I compared him to his predecessor, Mario Giulini, it was particularly
Giulini took the Los Angeles Phil, which despite its overblown reputation
is sometimes quite second rate, and performed Beethoven that made me cry: it
was so incredible.
So the news about Salonenšs travails in his native Finland, which hadn't
been written about yet outside his native Finland, brought out the worst in
me. A fellow journalist, Jeffrey Stalk, and I researched and wrote up the
story about the financial irregularities at the Helsinki Festival which was
under Salonen's control.
During the course of writing about the incident, I found out that the
Helsinki Festival, which for three decades had been dedicated to classical
music, now included rock music.
This underscored everything I had felt by Salonen's lackadaisical Brahms. I knew I didn't like the man. I confess to nicknaming him Fresser Pecker.
Now, I know I part company with many people when I explain my attitude to
I understand the validity of rock's roots in blues, but that has become a
highly tenuous connection. To me, rock is commerce, not music. Just as the importance of the science of physics can't be compared to hucksters on
television selling psychic nostrums, rock can't be compared to classical
I suppose having rock in a classical music festival particularly offends me
because rock music has the power of giant multinational recording companies
behind it that can package and sell just about anything, whereas classical
music survives because man's nature includes the sacred as well as the
The greatest musical creator of the 20th century was not Elvis Presley, but
Bela Bartok. Prokofiev and Stravinsky were no slouches, either. Neither was
George Gershwin. But Bartok dominates this century the way Bach and
Beethoven did previous centuries.
A while after I had written my piece, Salonen was playing Messiaen's
Turangalila Symphony written right after World War II. My wife insisted we
go hear it. She said I had to give Salonen a chance in person.
The concert opened with Salonen butchering a Stravinsky violin work as
badly as he had macerated Brahms. Surprising myself, I felt sadness, not
But after the intermission, the orchestra came alive; and this most
incredible post-World War II music filled the auditorium.
I'm not going to use my hypewriter, but it was great.
I was badly shaken and I pondered the matter at length. Salonen is the
musical director, and that is too bad. Beethoven, Brahms, Bach and
Stravinsky he had butchered. But he acquitted himself incredibly in the case of Messiaen.
Maybe the way out of the dilemma is simple: have two musical directors, one
for post-World War II and the other for all the rest of the previous
(Lionel Rolfe is the author of 'Death and Redemption in London and Los Angeles', a book available electronically from Deadendstret
From our archives
When Rolfe wrote a book -- The history of the Menuhins, and why Yehudi was upset
Lonely in LA -- Read The Music Magazine's exclusive interview
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Quick external links
You can buy an electronic copy of Rolfe's new book at Deadend Street.
Visit The Menuhin Foundation, Brussels
A Menuhin discography