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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 © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Concert Review: His Way

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo by Silvia Lelli for the Salzburg Festival.
When the New York Philharmonic went through the torturous process of choosing a music director to replace Alan Gilbert, the Finnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen was very near the top of the list. On Saturday night, Mr. Salonen, who is the orchestra’s current composer-in-residence, led the last of three concerts this week featuring a new horn concerto by Tansy Davies, flanked by the music of Stravinsky and Richard Strauss.

The program opened with the first Philharmonic performances of Chant Funébre , an Igor Stravinsky work written in 1909 and lost until 2015, when a Russian musicologist discovered the long-lost orchestral parts in a deep archive, This twelve minute funeral song was played once, for the funeral of Stravinsky's mentor Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Stylistically, Chant Funébre is a bridge between that composer’s late romantic style and the revolutionary ballets which would cement the younger composer’s international reputation.

As one might expect, this piece starts as a slow march, with a mournful tread of strings that recalls Beethoven’s Eroica. It was answered by a solo dirge for wood winds, playing a minor-key chorale that may have been a Russian church mode. Their entry carefully controlled by Mr, Salonen. The music built into a rolling wave of grief, climaxing with brass and percussion before dying back into a mournful tread and a final silence. When Mr. Salonen took his bow he held up the score, and then hugged it against his chest.

The charismatic composer-conductor returned with a microphone and a guest, introducing he audience to theta sexy Davies , the writer of the new Forest, a Concerto for Four Horns. Commissioned by Mr, Salonen and receiving it's US premiere in these concerts, it pit four hornists from Mr. Salonen’s own Philharmonia orchestra against the vast forces of the orchestra, following individual and unison paths in the winding, knotted thicket of the accompanying orchestration.

This was challenging stuff, as the four horn players found themselves confronted by massy brambles of strings and wind as they attempted to nap navigate the works overgrown paths. Harmonics created by the winding together of two, three and four brass lines yielded unsettling chords. The overall structure was fast-slow-fast, following the traditional layout of the concerto though expressed ,as one contiguous movement. In the closing passage, Mr, Salonen and horn players finally found their way not if the brambles, ending in a welcome clearing of silence.

Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra is his most famous, tone poem, elevated to pop-culture immortality when its "Dawn" movement was used at the opening and close of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Mr. Salonen led the orchestra and listeners through that famous ascending sequence of chords, as trumpets and trombones were supplanted by the enormous electronic organ that (at David Geffen Hall) serves as a substitute for the real thing. That did not lessen its impact, nor that of Markus Rhoten's pounding, alternating timpani as the orchestra crashed back down the series of intervals.

And then the dance proper started, as Mr. Salonen led an exploration of the work's dark passages. Repeated uses of the opening perfect fifth provided ladders out of the existential murk, and a long solo passage for violin showed the quality of Philharmonic concertmaster Frank Huang. Eventually, the work turned from mystic rumblings to a waltz, as Strauss used the popular Viennese rhythm to depict humanity, dancing blithely through Strauss' cosmic spheres.

The long and thoroughly developed waltz culminated in the striking of an enormous bell, twelve somber tones over crashing orchestra and organ, stirred to further heights by Mr. Salonen's baton. The thunder faded and the piece ended in near silence, with the questing, upward theme interrupted by woodwinds in a different key. Like the uncertain nature of life, no resolution was found. 

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