The Inventory: Esa-Pekka Salonen

Esa-Pekka Salonen, 53, is a Finnish conductor and composer renowned for his interpretations of contemporary music. He is principal conductor and artistic adviser of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, and conductor laureate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

What was your earliest ambition?

Definitely music.

Public school or state school? University or straight into work?

An experimental school, which was also the most highly rated academic school in Finland. Then the Sibelius Academy [in Helsinki] allowed me to study music on a quality level from 15. I went to Italy to study further in my early twenties.

Who was or still is your mentor?

Every day I feel grateful for the teachers I had and for having come into contact early on with some of the most important musicians of our time.

How physically fit are you?

I try to make exercise a priority. My work is physical and I need the endorphins you can only get by pushing your body.

Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?

Love for the subject, whatever it is – that’s the key.

Have you ever taken an IQ test?

No. And I never will.

How politically committed are you?

I’ve never been a member of any political party. I’m an old-fashioned humanist-democrat-liberal. I associate myself with the left of centre – this is a very difficult position as we don’t know where the centre is any more. I’m active in the environmental movement and I support organisations such as WWF and Amnesty International.

If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would he think?

He would be horrified by this guy who has sold out completely. When I was 20 I was a die-hard modernist – I saw conductors as the number one enemies of culture and music.

Do you consider your carbon footprint?

I spend a great deal of time on aeroplanes but, unfortunately, I don’t see any alternative. I try to do the right thing elsewhere.

Do you have more than one home?

I do, currently in London, Los Angeles and Finland.

What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?

A mobile phone that would organise my life and make calls for me.

What’s your biggest extravagance?

I own an embarrassing pile of mobile phones because of the quest for the perfect one.

In what place are you happiest?

Happiness has to do with whether I can be with my family or not.

What ambitions do you still have?

I think my best work is still ahead. Music is such an ocean that you can’t even see the other shore, let alone cross it in one lifetime.

What drives you on?

To get deeper into music and maybe do something that will have more than temporary value.

What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?

There is very little I can say I’ve achieved solo.

What has been your greatest disappointment?

I have come to a point in life where I have to admit that there will be things I will never have time for.

If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?

Start again.

Do you believe in assisted suicide?

Most likely I wouldn’t do it myself, but I think it should be an option.

Do you believe in an afterlife?


If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?

Life has exceeded my expectations, but I can’t give a number.

Esa-Pekka Salonen will lead the Philharmonia Orchestra at the BBC Proms on August 17; the orchestra’s London season opens on September 25

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