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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Concert Review: The Composer on the Podium

Esa-Pekka Salonen returns to the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen in action. © 2013 The Philharmonia Orchestra.
Ever since he stepped in, Bernstein-like to lead the Philharmonia Orchestra in a performance of Mahler's Third Symphony, Esa-Pekka Salonen has led the double existence of composer and conductor. Happily, he has succeeded in both endeavors, leading crisp, hospital-corner performances of orchestral music from the last three centuries, while breaking new musical ground with his own eclectic compositional style.

On Wednesday night, Mr. Salonen (who is currently Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia) made the first of five concert appearances with the New York Philharmonic this season. The program included the first concert performances of Mr. Salonen's Violin Concerto as well as an opportunity to hear this Finnish conductor lead music by his countryman Jean Sibelius.


The program opened with a sparkling performance of the Ma Mere L'Oye Suite, Maurice Ravel's witty setting of the beloved Mother Goose stories. Under Mr. Salonen, the Philharmonic players responded deftly, playing the subtle, breathing rhythms of "Sleeping Beauty" and the Oriental ornamentation of "The Princess of the Pagodas." Contrabassoonist Arlen Fast played a deep, soulful solo in "Beauty and the Beast" and the final "Enchanted Garden" engulfed the listener and fired the imagination with a kaleidoscope of sound.

The orchestra was joined by violinist Leala Josefowicz for Mr. Salonen's Violin Concerto, a four-movement work written to commemorate the composer's departure from his long tenure with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Ms. Josefowicz bit cleanly into the opening phrases of the first movement, her solo part contrasting with the tinkle of tuned gongs and an expanded percussion section. The diaphanous second movement ("Pulse I") was subtle and reflective, achieving a static tension which was carefully maintained by conductor and soloist.

That relative quiet was shattered by the full-on assault of "Pulse II", combining sophisticated polyrhythms with a full assault from percussion and brass. Percussionist Christopher Lamb played the complex, athletic drum solo that comes smack dab in the middle of this movement. The glowing finale ended with subtle playing from Ms. Josefowicz and that hushed, mysterious chord which seems to contradict the rest of the concerto.

"Mysterious" might be a good word to describe Sibelius' Fifth Symphony. Cast in three movements (with the opening Allegro and Scherzo being played as one continuous piece of music) this work captures the qualities of despair, optimism and mischief that are central to this composer's best work. Mr. Salonen's interpretation emphasized the cyclic construction of this work, as the tolling-bell theme (central to all three movements and dominating the finale) was clearly heard in the first movement. The opening horn calls were majestic.

The conductor achieved a delicate web of strings in the second movement, leading the slow passages with absolute clarity and precision, his baton cutting the air in great gestures at the brassy climax. In the finale, skittering string figures recapitulate later as a mighty, but still playful fugue, answered by the horns playing a series of intervals like great bells of celebration. This is answered by another rich, sentimental theme in the flutes and cello. The whole climaxes in a series of six thunderous fortissimo chords, a musterious close that has some common ground with the conductor's Violin Concerto.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.