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Friday, March 25, 2011

Concert Review: Storm, Followed by Thunder

Salonen Ends Hungarian Echoes with Style
Your guide to Hungarian Echoes, Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Photo by Nicho Rodig ©
For the last three weeks, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen has led the New York Philharmonic in the "Hungarian Echoes" festival, juxtaposing the music of Haydn, Bártok and Ligeti. Friday's concert built in momentum throughout, and culminated in an old-fashioned Finno-Ugraic beat-down. (The Finnish term for this is takapuoli potkiminen.)

As before, the concert opened with one of Haydn's three symphonies celebrating a specific time of the day. This one, Le Soir is the evening symphony, a forward-looking work that predicts some of the musical innovations that Beethoven would incorporate into his Sixth. The symphony featured concertmaster Glenn Dicterow and bassist Eugene Levinson, playing extensive solo parts against the orchestra, and culminated in an afternoon aural thunderstorm.

The first Bártok work on the program followed: the kinetic First Piano Concerto. Its tricky rhythms were no match for the all-Finland team of Mr. Salonen and pianist Olli Mustonen, who made the three movements a thrilling experience. Mr. Mustonen thundered through the heaviest passages, with his hands flying up and down the keyboard. This is music that requires rhythmic virtuosity, particularly in the heaviest passages. With able support from Mr. Salonen and the Philharmonic players, he scored a triumph.

With Clocks and Clouds, Mr. Salonen finally offered his audience the type of spaced-out music that most casual listeners associate with the name György Ligeti. Featuring a contrast between repeated, wordless vocalises and repeated figures in the strings and woodwinds, this would be appropriate accompaniment to the final psychedelic journey in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. As it was, the slow-building work climaxed several times before dying down to a moving silence.

The Philharmonic then brought its full force to bear on the Suite from Bártok's The Miraculous Mandarin, a shocking, violent work which deals with the collusion between a prostitute and two thugs who beat and rob her customers. Mr. Salonen's interpretation captured the force of every choreographed punch and kick, backed up with the "brass knuckles" of horns, trombones and tuba. With the conductor urging them on, the orchestra played with a precise brutality that would be the envy of any heavy metal band. It was a stunning end to Mr. Salonen's three-week Hungarian excursion.

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