The world's best composer in 2011 is… a conductor

The world's best composer in 2011 is… a conductor


norman lebrecht

November 28, 2011

The Grawemeyer Award, the richest prize for contemporary composition, is greatly coveted by all who put notes to paper. Apart from the prestige, there’s $100,000 in an envelope, which is more than most living composers see from their work in a decade.

This year’s winner has just been announced.

It is Esa-Pekka Salonen for his violin concerto. Here’s his victory interview with Alex Ross.

Would you say the Salonen violin concerto is the best new work of the past year? Listen here. You judge.


  • I don’t know who the best composer is, but I know that Esa-Pekka is really hedging when he discusses the ticket prices for orchestras and opera in the USA. He notes that orchestra tickets cost about the same as pop tickets. What he doesn’t mention is that orchestras need subscribers, and that they sell most of their tickets that way, while pop concerts are one-time deals. A subscription for good seats at the Chicago Symphony can cost couple $3000. No one pays that for Madonna. If you don’t buy subscriptions for operas and orchestras it is much more difficult to get good seats.

    He also really hedges when discussing how much cheaper ticket prices in Europe generally are, especially for opera.

    And he doesn’t mention that Opera houses are everywhere in continental Europe but that the USA only has about 6 real houses and the longest season is 7 months. Compare that to Germany which has 83 *year-round* houses and one quarter the population.

    I wish there were more mainstream artists who weren’t willing to give Alex Ross the goody-two-shoes answers he so often goes fishing for. It’s digusting. Artists should have more critical minds, and perhaps a bit more integrity.

  • The much greater density of orchestras and opera houses gives European artists a large advantage over their American counterparts in developing professional experience and careers. So when questions about the relationship between American society and culture arises, why do these Europeans working in America so often remain silent about the vital role public arts funding has played in their lives?

    Here are some clips from a commentary in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis from April 23, 2004 entitled “Music Education Permeates Finnish Society” written by Kristin Tillotson:

    “ Helsinki alone is home to five symphony orchestras. Nationwide, there are 21 more, as well as 12 regional opera companies. At least eight world-class conductors, including the Minnesota Orchestra’s Osmo Vanska and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Esa-Pekka Salonen, were raised and trained in Finland . More than 30 full-time classical composers live and work there.

    The article continues:

    “How has a nation of 5.2 million people — a population only slighter greater than the state of Minnesota ‘s — produced such a surplus of talent? […] Outstanding music education is the primary reason. But at its source is a national attitude that music is not dessert, but an essential food group for personal, cultural and civic sustenance, and as deserving of government subsidy as health care and schools.”

    The Star Tribune article continues with a quote of the director of advanced studies at the Sibelius Academy , Osmo Palonen:

    “‘[Music] is so ingrained in our culture; there is never a question about the government putting a lot of money into it. This also makes music very democratic here, not just something for the elite.’”

    Note, by contrast, that in the interview with Alex Ross, Esa-Pekka’s avoids any comment about public arts funding and the role it plays in eliminating unnecessary elitism in classical music – and even though the issue of elitism was one of the main topics of discussion. Why?

  • I couldn’t possibly answer this question, whether or not the Salonen Violin Concerto is the best new composition of the year. I’ll tell you, though, that upon first hearing, it doesn’t touch me. I believe the piece is a reflection of our technological age; mechanical and lacking a certain prerequisite for the violin as human voice, perhaps that certain something might be a beautiful melody.

  • Harold Braun says:

    I think it is a very,very good piece.It`s really written very well for the soloist(he got some advice by Leila Josefowicz,for whom it`s written) and tremendously orchestrated,and should be touched only by virtuoso performers,soloists,orchestras and conductors.As much as i like it,I think it resembles ,with its Salonen-typic,Messiaen influcend language very much his other more recent works,and those of his compatriot and friend Magnus Lindberg.It´s really a good thing that so many composers now write harmonically and rhytmically interesting music ,happy to free themselves from the crippling chains of elitist stale Donaueschingen pseudo avantgarde crap.I mean also music which is interesting for performers and public alike.Iàm absolutely convinced that any music which denies the roots of its creator ,be it geographically and(or) historically,is obsolete.
    It`s difficult to say,whether it`s the best of the year.The greatest impression on me left two works by the fascinating Russian emigre composer,pianist and author Lera Auerbach ,Icarus ,a tone poem for orchestra,and her new first full-lenght opera “Gogol”,which had its premiere two weeks ago in vienna.Searching,gorgeous ,dark,sarcastic,sometimes OTT,gorgeous,terrifying ,poetic and thoroughly russian music..
    By the way,Mr.Salonen ,like so many composer-conductors,considered himself at the beginning of his career as a composer,who also conducts.Nowadays,of course,it`s almost vice versa. Only during the last 15 years
    he has turned to composing:A creative process,triggered by his experience as a world class conductor,gave birth to some brillant,thrilling and sensous masterpieces.

  • ariel says:

    Whether is is the best work of the year I suppose depends who is in and who is out – that it should
    reach the heights of third rate would be to commend the work – the endless sawing away by Ms Josefowicz can’t save it from the pretentious nothing that passes for a violin concerto . It will of course have its run then off
    to the dust bin where it belongs .

  • Patricia Kopatchinskaja says:

    It is indeed a wonderful, magic piece. I played it two weeks ago with E-P in Dortmund, it was such a happiness and great experience. Congratulation from all my heart!