Esa-Pekka Salonen:

works for cello


for "cello solo (1986)

Esa-Pekka Salonen: "I began to work on the Yta series in 1982. The first piece was for solo alto flute, the second for piano (rev. for harpsichord) and the third for cello. The title Yta is Swedish, and means ‘surface’. I wanted to write very demanding virtuoso music, where the surface is extremely busy, but the formal process, partly hidden behind the frenetic stream of fast gestures, is considerably slower.

Yta III is the only instrumental work of mine with any kind of programmatic content. I tried to imagine what happens to the famous moth, that circles around a lamp in Skryabin’s Vers a flamme, after the wings have finally touched the flame. A series of gestures is introduced in the beginning. Each gesture undergoes an individual development, culminating in spasms before dying away. Yta III is a study of the death of an organism; the ugliest and most violent piece I’ve written."

The YTA series was going to grow in the vein of Luciano Berio's Sequenzas, but conducting started taking more and more of Esa-Pekka's time after the first three pieces and the series came to a halt. Salonen has said that when composing this piece he had in his mind an image of a moth flying into a flame and burning its wings; we see it in its last desperate efforts of staying in the air with what used to be its wings. The image is so fitting that even if he would not have told it, we would surely have thought of it after hearing this piece, and certainly after playing it. Even the way the piece was born has a touch of this same desperate energy; Esa-Pekka was quite late in finishing the piece and was only able to hand me the manuscript minutes before the set world premiere at the Viitasaari Contemporary Music festival. It was to be part of Toimii-ensemble's concert and true to the spirit of the Toimii ensemble we decided that I would attempt to sight read it on stage. I don't know who was more like the moth, me trying to stay in the air playing without wings or Kari Kriikku, who tried to follow what I was playing and turn the burning pages for me.

To me the metaphor of the moth is all the more real as my first pet - when I was about 6 years old - was a moth, Deilephila elpenor. I had grown it from larvae to a full grown moth. I kept it in our apartment and fed it orange juice. After only two days it died by flying into a lamp and burning. I called it Horsma-Heikki.

Anssi Karttunen



for cello and ensemble, or cello and chamber orchestra


Ensemble Version: 1(also piccolo).1.1(also english horn).1./ Celesta).Harp/Str:

Chamber Orchestra Version: 1(also piccolo).1.1(also english horn).1./ Celesta).Harp/Str: 8,8,4,0,2

Duration: 17:30

Publisher: Chester Music

CD: Sony Classical, SK89158; London Sinfonietta,  Esa-Pekka Salonen


First Performance: 2.7.2000 Suvisoitto Festival, Porvoo, Finland. Avanti!,  Esa-Pekka Salonen

First Performance of final version: 9.12.2000, Messina, Sicily. London Sinfonietta,  Esa-Pekka Salonen

US Premiere: 17.12.2000. Sospeso Ensemble,  Esa-Pekka Salonen

UK Premiere: 16.5.2001, Queen Elisabeth Hall. London. London Sinfonietta,  Oliver Knussen.

5.3.2002, Musica Nova Festival, Helsinki, Avanti!,  Esa-Pekka Salonen

First Performance of version for chamber orchestra: 27.4.2002, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. Dutch Radio Orchestra,  Eri Klas.

16.1.2003, Los Angeles, Green Umbrella series. LA Philharmonic New Music Group,  Esa-Pekka Salonen

12.9.2003, Zankel Hall (Carnegie Hall) New York, John Adams cond.

12-13.2.2005, Los Angeles. LA Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen

2.3.2005, Cologne Philharmonie. LA Philharmonic,  Esa-Pekka Salonen

12.2.2009, Munich, Munich Chamber Orchestra, Olari Elts

2-3.2.2011, Kotka and Kouvola, Finland, Kymi Sinfonietta, Yasuo Shinosaki

11.3.2011, Paris, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Jonathan Stockhammer

7.10.2015, Macau, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen

8.10.2015, Shanghai, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen

10.10.2015, Beijing, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen

Esa-Pekka Salonen writes:

" I have always been interested in virtuosity. There is a very strange kind of beauty in the idea of a performer doing extremely difficult things for other people to enjoy. The best kind of virtuoso is a musician, who is willing to go to places nobody has gone before; a virtuoso of mind as well as fingers. Most of my instrumental music is about challenging fellow performers, sometimes pushing them to their physical (of mental) limits, but always with respect and empathy. The best thing about conducting to me (apart from the music itself) is the thrill of sensing the energy of talented and dedicated people on stage. When composing, I try to imagine that particular kind of radiation, especially when the lonely existence in my studio feels frustratingly slow and devoid of adrenaline, which performers of course enjoy sometimes more than they'd wish.

Mania was written for Anssi Karttunen, a close friend and a much admired colleague, whom I have known since the distant days of playing first horn in my early teens in the Junior Orchestra of the Sibelius Academy, where Anssi was the solo cellist.

In the late 1980's, I wrote a short solo piece for him: Yta III, which is still the most extreme piece of music I've composed : bizarre and violent, very ugly, but a virtuoso vehicle nevertheless.

In spring 2000, I finally decided to write a concertante piece for Anssi and a small orchestra, a plan I had had for a decade or so. I wanted to compose music, which consists of a number of relatively simple gestures or archetypes which are constantly evolving and changing; not so much through traditional variation techniques, but through a kind of metamorphosis. A maggot becomes a cocoon, which becomes a butterfly: very different gestalts indeed, but the DNA is the same.

Mania is about movement that never stops. The tempo fluctuates between extremes, gestures become other gestures. Transitions are quite often seamless, telescopic (NB not telescopical): a new thing starts before the previous one has ended. (Not entirely coincidentally, this is the main formal principle in the late works of Sibelius, especially in the Seventh Symphony and Tapiola.)

The role of the cello varies from a clear solo/accompaniment situation to merely being a part of a chamber ensemble - and all the shades between these extremes. Therefore, Mania has little to do with a traditional concerto form."

Esa-Pekka Salonen


Sarabande per un Coyote

Mystery Variation, for 'cello solo (2010)

Esa-Pekka Salonen naturally took part in the Mystery Variations collective composition/gift to my 50th birthday. 31 composers wrote one variation each on Giuseppe Colombi's Chiacona, one of the earliest pieces written for the cello as a solo instrument. Each composer looked at the Chiacona from their own perspective and reacted in their personal way. Esa-Pekka Salonen makes his variation into a grandiose fantasy on the rhythmic progression of the Chiacona. He ignores any austere early-Baroque harmonies or the limits of what is comfortable on the cello and projects Colombi through a post-Busonian, even post-Scriabinian magnifying lens.

Anssi Karttunen


knock,breathe, shine

Esa-Pekka Salonen: knock, breathe, shine for 'cello solo (2010)


"24 years separate Salonen's first piece for solo 'cello: YTA III and knock, breathe, shine. A lot has changed in his music between the two pieces, but much remains the same - his fascination for the extreme for one. While in 1986 Salonen wrote that YTA III  was "the ugliest and most violent piece" he had composed, much of knock, breathe, shine is definitely not ugly. There are many gestures in this piece that resemble a rather normal cello piece, but most of what is seemingly familiar comes in such strange context that the piece is like no other. It is as if the composer imagined a classical cello piece, twisted and turned it around until only a skeleton is left, then builds new flesh around it. In this piece one meets beautiful friends in unusual places. The fascination for virtuosity has certainly not left Esa-Pekka Salonen, he again shows what the cello can do even if the cellist has hard time keeping up.


knock, breathe, shine has three movements: 

knock - as its name lets us expect - has a lot of pizzicatos of different kinds which eventually get very mixed up, the bow getting more and more in their way. 

breathe is about breathing, about singing, about melodies. Singing even at altitudes with no oxygen. It is about the power of a melody. 

shine shows us the all the brilliance of what one could do on the 'cello if one were able to play it while sitting on a roller coaster. 

The title "knock, breathe, shine" comes from the 14th sonnet by John Donne (1572-1631). While the title seems to describe the music to the letter, it was found well after the piece was finished, therefore the piece is not descriptive, the title is."

Anssi Karttunen



NEW YORK TIMES 19.12.2000

December 19, 2000

Esa-Pekka Salonen: A Conductor's Night of Firsts

Esa-Pekka Salonen, the dynamic 42-year- old conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is also an active composer. Indeed, until his late 20's he considered himself a composer who conducted on occasion.

New Yorkers had lacked many opportunities to experience Mr. Salonen as a composer until Sunday night, when he was the featured composer in Carnegie Hall's Making Music series. Before a full house at Weill Recital Hall, Mr. Salonen spoke about his compositions with Ara Guzelimian, the series moderator, and conducted some of his recent works, all in their New York or United States premieres, with the impressive contemporary music group Ensemble Sospeso. ...

...That Mr. Salonen can write distinctive music was clear, though, from "Mania," a kind of concerto for cello and chamber ensemble, complete with marimba, gongs, piano and aggressive brass and winds. The swift pace and wild mood swings allow no wallowing in any one idea. Meters get fractured; instrumental lines dart and collide; the harmonic language is piercing and full of surprises; and the virtuosic writing for cello, formidably played by Anssi Karttunen, lurches between anguished lyricism and fits of anger.

Anthony Tommasini

MUSICAL AMERICA, December 22, 2000

Esa-Pekka Salonen as Composer

NEW YORK -- Esa-Pekka Salonen is not the only conductor who composes -- Lorin Maazel appeared in that double capacity here less than a month ago -- but he may well be among the most exciting and prolific. Until the concert at Carnegie's Weill Hall on Dec. 17 devoted principally to his music, New Yorkers have tended to think of him primarily as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The balance may tilt now....

..."Mania," for solo cello and ensemble, heard in its U.S. premiere, was the densest and busiest work of the evening, and pitted a furiously active cello part against individual ensemble instruments -- or the whole gang together. Soloist Anssi Karttunen carried the day, from the lovely forest murmurs at the beginning through sections of blunt aggressiveness, to a mad, manic finish. If there were times when the cello appeared to scramble to the point of diminishing returns, nobody seemed to mind, and the full house gave soloist and composer a rousing response.

All three works were the result of Salonen's year-long sabbatical from the Los Angeles podium. The working vacation was definitely a good idea.

  Shirley Fleming

LOS ANGELES TIMES, Wednesday, December 20, 2000

Salonen: A Writing-Conducting Showcase in NYC

He leads the U.S. premiere of his 'Mania' in a program of his own and others' works.

By JEREMY EICHLER, Special to The Times

NEW YORK--As he approaches the end of his one-year sabbatical from the LosAngeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen took the stage of Carnegie's Weill Recital Hall on Sunday for a rare evening that brought together his disparate roles as conductor and composer. For this concert, part of Carnegie Hall's Making Music series, he was both at once, leading the admirable Ensemble Sospeso and special guests in three of his own recent works as well as music by Witold Lutoslawski and Steven Stucky.

Which is not to say that composing and conducting are always so different for Salonen, as he told Ara Guzelimian, Carnegie Hall's artistic advisor, in an onstage discussion that took place between the works. At his best moments, Salonen said, the music flows through him in a similar way; creator and interpreter can be as one. The real difference between the two, he added, is in what he called their metabolisms: Whereas conducting can fill him with adrenaline and excitement, composing can be "very lonely and very slow."

Be that as it may, there was little slowness in evidence on stage Sunday night, particularly in Salonen's "Mania," a sprightly piece for solo cello and small orchestra that received its United States premiere. From the outset, the work moves in a free-ranging perpetual motion, replete with anguished arpeggios and outbursts of lyricism against a dense orchestral backdrop. Cello soloist Anssi Karttunen, the childhood friend of Salonen's for whom the piece was written, skillfully navigated the numerous challenges, not least of which was carving out expressive lines amid a rapid-fire barrage of notes.

 Jeremy Eichler

THE STRAD, August 2001 

London Sinfonietta, Oliver Knussen (conductor), Anssi Karttunen (cello)

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 16 May 2001

The effect of a solo cello emerging from a concertante texture for a few rich phrases only to be swiftly engulfed by the ensemble can be disconcerting, yet Esa-Pekka Salonen, in his new work Mania for cello and chamber players, proves that it can be a wholly compelling technique for the contrast it provides between the solo and orchestral sounds. One moment the cello skates effortlessly over the ensemble's fast-moving, interwoven phrases, the next it sinks back to become part of the concertante, only to re-emerge even more powerfully when the ensemble texture becomes sparser.

In the work's UK premiere, Anssi Karttunen, for whom the piece was written, delivered the cello's furiously virtuosic gestures with great dynamism and energy in a committed and persuasive performance: a commitment echoed, as ever, in the brilliant ensemble playing of the London Sinfonietta, under the eloquent direction of Oliver Knussen. 

Catherine Nelson 

DIAPASON: 2.2002


"...Mania, que nous découvrons grâce à ce disque, suscite plus d'enthousiasme encore. Le violoncelle d'aujourd'hui devra-t-il à Anssi Karttunen, dédicataire de tant d'excellentes oeuvres (dont le Concerto de Lindberg et Amers de Saariaho) la même fière chandelle que celui du siècle passé à Rostropovich? Salonen sert à merveille le jeu fluide et fantastique de son interprète, souvent expansif, jamais racoleur. "

Vincent Arech