»If you would change a few names in the libretto, it would be about very recent events.«

Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen will shape the 2025 Salzburg Easter Festival together with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra - with a new production of Modest Mussorgsky's monumental opera »Khovanshchina« taking centre stage. In this interview, the Finnish-born conductor talks about the Russian composer's topicality and a complicated neighbourhood.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Clive Barda

What is your personal relationship to Modest Mussorgsky's monumental folk drama »Khovanshchina«?

Esa-Pekka Salonen: »Khovanshchina« had been on my list of 20 pieces that I really wanted to do one day for many years. When I was young and didn't really see myself as an opera conductor, I made a list of works that fascinated me and slowly worked my way down the list. »Khovanshchina« was very high up there, and now, after several decades, the time has finally come.

What makes this opera relevant for the present time?

Esa-Pekka Salonen: »Khovanshchina« is a very special piece. If you were to change some of the names in the libretto, it would be about very recent events. I can't think of any other opera in which this would be so clear.

Mussorgsky left »Khovanshchina« unfinished, and there are various versions of this opera. Which one will be staged in Salzburg?

Esa-Pekka Salonen: This opera, like Mussorgsky's music in general, has a very special genesis and reception history. Mussorgsky did not orchestrate the piece himself. The first version that was premiered was by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who wanted to somehow »improve« the actual composition. However, we are taking the version by Dmitri Shostakovich as the starting point for our performance, but would also like to play the finale by Igor Stravinsky. The aim is to build a dramaturgical bridge between Marfa's last words from the original version and Stravinsky's wonderful ending.

Simon McBurney, whose rare operatic works are eagerly awaited by international audiences, is directing the production. This is not the first time you have worked with the director and actor. What excites you about this new collaboration?

Esa-Pekka Salonen: Simon is one of the most interesting directors around today. I saw a piece of his in Los Angeles many years ago, which was based on Shostakovich's string quartets, and I was thrilled. That's why I commissioned a production from him for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003. But it was always my wish to do a proper opera production with him, and I'm delighted that this is now happening. In addition, his brother Gerard, the dramaturge of our production, is a great specialist on Russia. He makes very precise cultural and historical references. That is very inspiring both artistically and intellectually.

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra @ Anton Sucksdorff

»I am very proud that I can bring this wonderful orchestra to the Easter Festival.«

You have a long history with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Esa-Pekka Salonen: Yes, it's the first professional orchestra I ever conducted. I think I was 19 years old at the time. It was part of my graduation programme at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. I was not only overwhelmed by the quality of the orchestra, but also by the friendliness of the musicians who supported me. I had no conducting experience at all at the time and they had to help me a lot. Since then, I have returned to the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra almost every year and have many friends among the musicians. I am very proud that I can now bring this wonderful orchestra to the Easter Festival.

In addition to »Khovanshchina«, you will conduct the orchestra in Mahler's »Resurrection Symphony«. But you will also present a piece from Finland.

Esa_Pekka Salonen: In Orchestra Concert I, the young Finnish star cellist Senja Rummukainen will interpret my Cello Concerto, which I composed for Yo-Yo Ma in 2017. We will then play the 2nd Symphony by Jean Sibelius, perhaps his most frequently performed work. Apart from its musical beauty, this work has become a symbol of Finnish independence. In the early 20th century, Finland still belonged to Russia, and these were very difficult times in the history of our country. For the Finns, the 2nd Symphony symbolised the search for their own identity and culture, both then and later.