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Monday, April 16, 2012

Concert Review: On Wings of Fire

Esa-Pekka Salonen brings his Violin Concerto to Boston.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Photo by Clive Barda for
On Friday night, the Boston Symphony Orchestra welcomed Esa-Pekka Salonen to the podium in Symphony Hall with a program featuring his own Violin Concerto with soloist Leila Josefowicz, bracketed by 20th century favorites by Ravel and Stravinsky. With no music director at the helm of the BSO this season, 2011-2012 has been a year of guest conductors. So a Boston visit by the dynamic Mr. Salonen--his first since 1988--was a welcome occasion for subscribers.

Mr. Salonen, who served a 17-year term as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is equally reputed as a composer as well as a conductor, but this weekend's concerts mark the first time that the BSO has played his music. The concert opened with Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, played with baroque delicacy. Mr. Salonen achieved his trademark "clean" sound, leading these four short movements without a baton. 

He then picked up a microphone to address the audience before his concerto was performed. He explained the history of the work's composition in 2008, its relationh to his difficult departure from Los Angeles, and its autobiographical nature. He also included some brief anecdotes to give the audience some valuable context before Ms. Josefowicz joined him onstage.

Mr. Salonen's concerto is on a vast scale, with four movements that require athletic playing and a firm command of the orchestra. Those qualities were present here, though the performance in Boston was not quite as raucous as one heard two weeks before in Philadelphia. Ms. Josefowicz shone in the difficult violin part, scraping out whole chords across the strings and chivvying out athletic runs up the neck of her instrument.

As explained by Mr. Salonen, the two central movements: Pulse I and Pulse II offer contrasting rhythmic ideas. The first is based around the composer's own heart arrhythmia, recalling Mahler's 9th Symphony in its faltering meter. The second evokes a girl that the composer met in his student years: a café waitress in Rome by day, a latex-clad club kid by night. 

This movement is the most gripping of the four. It is dominated by heavy, urban rhythms and percussion--including a full-on rock drum solo, almost unprecedented in a violin concerto--had arresting power. The last movement, Adieu resolved in a new, brilliant chord unheard before in the four movements: Mr. Salonen's way of expressing an optimistic future.

The concert ended with the full score of Stravinsky's Firebird ballet, a work that is familiar to BSO attendees from the tenure of former Music Director Seiji Ozawa. Here, Mr. Salonen chose a quicksilver approach to this enormous score, conjuring Stravinsky's folk-based melodies and washes of impressionistic orchestral color. He led the Firebird as its composer intended, as a sort of opera score without any words.

Some conductors are dull to watch on the podium as they beat time--but not Mr. Salonen. He sometimes turned his back completely on one half of the orchestra, leading the violins with laser-like focus or exhorting the woodwinds in their intricate lines. By the time the piece reached the final, celebratory dance, the conductor was red-faced. His face blazed with the effort as the orchestra rose to a fiery height, crashing down in the last chords. 

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