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Friday, October 17, 2014

Concert Review: By the Time He Gets to Phoenix

Esa-Pekka Salonen returns to the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen in action.
Photo courtesy toe Los Angeles Philharmonic.
On Thursday night, Esa-Pekka Salonen returned to the podium of Avery Fisher Hall to lead the New York Philharmonic in the first of three concerts this week. The acclaimed Finnish composer, who rose to fame in this country as the former leader of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was the first major guest conductor at the Philharmonic this young season. The program: early works by two composers who were also famous conductors: Ludwig van Beethoven and Igor Stravinsky.

The King Stephan Overture was light of foot with plenty of rhythmic snap. Mellow, burnished horns rose in chorus against buttery strings, with the pared-down Philharmonic capering nimbly through this little-performed work. Beethoven infused his score with Hungarian folk themes, and one could not help but think of Mr. Salonen's Hungarian Echoes festival, presented at the Philharmonic in March of 2011.

This was followed by Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1, with soloist Jeremy Denk making his Philharmonic debut. Mr. Denk is a familiar figure on the New York concert stage, and this performance had the feeling of a long-awaited union between pianist and orchestra. As Mr. Salonen led the players through the lengthy opening tutti, Mr. Denk sat, head bowed, waiting for his entrance. When it finally came, his piano tone was quiet and affirmative, launching into the long, friendly argument with the orchestra. Choosing Beethoven's own cadenzas, Mr. Denk played with bright tone and a firm sense of the music's poetic flow.

Mr. Denk's limpid approach to the piano continued in the slow movement, as soloist and orchestra broke apart and united to create a warm, inviting sound, the players kept in close focus by Mr. Salonen. The final movement, with its insistent, hammering rhythm was also kept light, with the soloist's legato runs weaving golden thread through the orchestral fabric. Ringing tones from the horns answered the piano, with the whole coming together in a rapid, bright-eyed finish.

Stravinsky composed The Firebird in the summer dacha belonging to his mentor Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Like the double-headed eagle that formed the imperial crest of the Romanovs, the score of this ballet looks forward and back. In one direction: the Rimsky-esque traditions of elaborate orchestration, Russian folklore and 19th century romanticism. The other faces forward, anticipating the bold experiments of The Rite of Spring.

Mr. Salonen emphasized the narrative drive of the ballet, paying close attention to the all-important textures and double repetitions in the atmospheric opening scenes. The pianissimi were barely audible. Whispered strings blossomed into thematic ideas and descending bassoon figures held the promise of the work's explosive finale. The conductor was clearly at home in the long scherzo, dancing with the strings in the fast folk rhythms, the music anticipating the fury that was to come.

The Infernal Dance opened with the bass-drum blows and timpani strikes coming slightly off-beat, creating a sense of nervous anticipation and buildup in the music that erupted violently in the heavy brass climax. Each fortissimo burned with savage energy, a raw sound that was thrilling to experience. Mr. Salonen slowed down again for the Disappearance of the Palace and the folk-theme horn call that opens the last pages. The  horn was answered by a muted solo harp, launching the final series of descending intervals and bringing this Firebird in for a thunderous and impressive landing.

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