When conductors compose

This weekend, Michael Christie will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) in Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 2001 orchestral work “Foreign Bodies.” Salonen, better known as a conductor, has been the head of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1992. When the PSO plays “Foreign Bodies,” however, there will be no need for Salonen to have a baton handy.

In the world of classical music, I’ve noticed that pianists always want to conduct (Daniel Barenboim in Chicago, Christoph Eschenbach in Philadelphia, and Vladimir Ashkenazy being the most notable), conductors always want to compose (Salonen and Wilhelm Furtwängler), and composers always want to conduct — at least, their own music.

Salonen and these other artists have all been fairly successful — although they all seem to be a little streaky in the consistencies of their interpretations — in whichever path they have chosen, and are generally able to continue working as pianist/conductors and conductor/composers.

However, some, like Furtwängler (who died in 1954), are known exclusively as conductors, though Furtwängler’s most ardent wish was to be etched in posterity as a composer. Furtwängler only conducted in order to make a living. Salonen is a similar case: He told the London Telegraph in 2005 that “I only conducted to — what is it you English say? — keep the wolf from the door. Also, I wanted to hear my music conducted by someone who was really keen on it! But then my Philharmonia concert went well, I got asked to do more things, and — I don’t know, things took off.”

Salonen, born in 1958, studied composition during his years at the Sibelius Academy of Finland. Conducting has monopolized Salonen’s time, so much so that in 2000, he took a sabbatical to compose. Salonen is already an accomplished conductor, but whether or not he can make that transition to become a successful composer is a different story.

Salonen’s conducting experience translates into music that is skillfully orchestrated. As a conductor, Salonen has learned all of the tricks for scoring music. Salonen has forgotten more about scoring than most film composers ever learn, no matter how many two-and-a-half-hour sequels they get to write music for. “Foreign Bodies” is worth hearing if only for the lavish and skillful orchestration. In “Bodies,” you’ve got everything you could imagine — huge wind, brass, and string sections, and an enormous complement of percussion (including some unusual instruments, whose interesting effects I won’t spoil). Salonen recorded the work with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, which was released by Deutsche Grammophon in February 2005.

But that’s the problem with “Foreign Bodies”: Its main virtue is its lavish orchestration. Sure, in carefully listening to Salonen’s recording of the piece, I detected some musical arguments and motives, but they just weren’t that interesting. After listening to the piece several times, its charm wore off. Perhaps I was blinded by the piece’s accessibility, which deceived me into thinking it was superficial.

From “Foreign Bodies,” it is obvious that Salonen is a skilled orchestrator, which comes from his conducting. But as for actual composition, when all the orchestral effects are out of the way, I am still on the fence as to Salonen’s status as a composer. Salonen has the clout as a conductor and is making the time to write new works and record them. But once Salonen is no longer around, will anyone play his music?

Even if “Foreign Bodies” doesn’t make a profound impression on you, it is definitely worth hearing this week at the symphony. The virtuosic PSO promises to deliver a knockout performance of this orchestral showpiece.