Esa-Pekka Salonen and Alan Gilbert/Photo: Chris Lee, courtesy New York Philharmonic

Esa-Pekka Salonen is one of the best-known conductors of today, and he is also one of the best-known composers. Is there a relation? Does his fame as a conductor give him a leg up as a composer? Maybe, but everyone needs a leg up, and Salonen is a creditable composer regardless.

The New York Philharmonic performed a piece of his, Karawane, for orchestra and chorus. It was the final piece on the program—which is unusual, in that new works are usually heard on the first half of a program. Many seasons ago, a string quartet programmed a new...

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