News |The Sound of San Remo Drive

Esa-Pekka Salonen, composer and conductor laureate for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Music Director Designate of the San Francisco Symphony, and The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross hosted an evening of music at the Thomas Mann House.

In the spirit of Thomas Mann’s music sessions at his exilic home in Los Angeles in the 1940s, where Mann listened to gramophone recordings and had in-depth conversations about them with some of the most influential musical figures of the time, the acclaimed composer Salonen stated: “When politics fails, it’s best to put intellectuals together in one space.”

After a euphoric introduction by Dr. Steven Lavine, former president of the California Institute of the Arts and chairman of the Thomas Mann House advisory board, Ross opened the conversation by showing his first edition of Mann’s Dr. Faustus to the audience. The book he bought in his early 20s in a New York second-hand bookshop for just a few dimes awoke his passion for modern music, which became his fascination in the following years. For Salonen, Dr. Faustus played an important role in his musical development, and it was specifically the monologue of the devil in his Finish translation of the book that caught his attention.

With Dr. Faustus as a starting point, the two began an engaging dialogue on how the artist émigrés of the 1930s shaped the musical landscape in in the United States and in particular Los Angeles, culminating in Salonen sharing a story about a time when he considered purchasing Igor Stravinsky’s Los Angeles home in the 1990s. When a friend asked him, “how would it feel writing just a single note in this house?”, he ultimately dismissed the idea.

Ross then took the conversation to the music of the Weimar Republic and their mutual interest in the period. Talking about a “collective psychosis of a society,” Salonen claimed that contemporary artists share some of the experiences of their predecessors from the 1920s: “The idea of relative freedom and relative hierarchy” is resulting in the fact that there are “no schools and no mainstream” in today’s music. Salonen emphasized the important role of the then-young medium of radio. A lot of the music that was written in Germany in the 1920s was written for the people — “a new music for new people” — and engaged in experiments with this new medium of distribution. Building a bridge to the present, Ross wondered what the role of social media might play in the organization of today’s music, leading them to the question of if, and how, social media can harness the potential of contemporary art.

Mann, who had a deep and lasting fascination with the gramophone, noting in his diary that it was “a mentally and purely epic find,” acquired his own gramophone and dedicated a whole chapter of his novel The Magic Mountain to “electric gramophone music.” Inspired by Mann’s fascination with the gramophone, Ross read a passage of the chapter to the audience and played a record of Richard Tauber singing Der Lindenbaum (1923) and the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Die Walküre. Ross later gifted the recording of Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic to the Thomas Mann House. Salonen referenced another entertaining anecdote: When he started conducting for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, they gave him a brand-new Steinway. Since his kids were in an age where they would “paint on anything around them with their crayons,” he asked for an older, less valuable piano. It was by accident that one of the technicians later told him that the old piano he ended up with had once been belonged to Bruno Walter.

After listening to Die Walküre, the two turned to a conversation about Wagner, whom Salonen calls an “opportunist, a liar, a controversial figure.” Answering Ross’s question on the challenges of conducting composers like Wagner, Salonen responds: “We can’t change the past. We have to look at Wagner’s work in the function of his time. What is the universal message in his work? We have to accept that we are not perfect and that the past can — and always will be — judged by the future.” Ross mentions that Mann also had ambiguous feelings about Wagner, who “became a possession of the Nazis in the late 1920s.” But for Ross, it is this ambiguity that makes Wagner so interesting: “There is no clear answer. Wagner forces us not to be sentimental about art anymore.”

With Ross playing the last song for the evening, “Es geschah,” from Alfred Schnittke’s Faust Cantata, the conversation comes full circle, returning to Mann’s Dr. Faustus. For Salonen, the book seems like an attempt to rationalize certain aspects of music: “The book has been put together like a composition. The book itself is like music!” Ross underlines the avant-garde form of writing about a new type of music by reading a passage from Dr. Faustus and concluding: “There are visions of avant-garde music in the book that did not exist yet.”

Ross and Salonen then opened the conversation to questions from the audience. Being asked about the role of California as a fertile ground for creativity and progress, Salonen turns to the renowned architect Frank Gehry, designer of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, who carefully followed the whole conversation from the first row. Gehry: “Well, the film industry is like a cover. You can basically do anything — because nobody cares!” After Mr. Gehry’s poignant answer, Salonen again addressed the obviously delighted audience in his last remark: “I am very optimistic about the future of arts and music.”

Esa-Pekka Salonen and Alex Ross ended the evening by thanking the Thomas Mann House for hosting the night and for its important work in arts and culture. They invited the audience to further discuss these topics and questions over a reception of light refreshments in Mann’s living room.

The Thomas Mann House is planning further events for “The Sound of San Remo Drive” in the near future.

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