In an Afterworks Masterworks post-concert session Feb. 24, guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen discussed his approach to performing the works of Witold Lutosławski, whose Symphony No. 3 is featured on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s subscription concerts this week.

Known as a specialist in modern music, Salonen observed that most ensembles he conducts are not daunted by the difficulty of Lutosławski’s compositions: “If an orchestra reads a conductor very well, and if he/she is passionate and believes in the music, then the orchestra is usually very willing to go along.”

Crucial to his understanding of Lutosławski’s music was a trip he took to Poland to “retrace the steps of the young composer.” After visiting his childhood home “now I understand this man,” said Salonen of Lutosławski (1913-1994), whose father and uncle were executed as political prisoners in 1918. Before that trip, Salonen admitted he “never got the feeling that [he] knew what Lutosławski was really thinking, until I finally realized what kind of a childhood he had. He lost everyone. Now when I conduct his music, I’m more able to convey the music’s emotional impact. The darkness and the pain.”

And yet, many Lutosławski works end with what Salonen described as a “J.C. Penney Christmas commercial” kind of sound. But he added, “It’s important to show some kind of light and hope for the future. Yes, we do have a responsibility, and we have a duty [to uplift audiences], so getting out of the concert hall happy is not a bad idea.”

To hear the full conversation, click here or on the audio link below.