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Monday, June 5, 2017

Concert Review: Between East and West Lies the North

Esa-Pekka Salonen and the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen in flight. Photo © Radio France.
In 2009, Esa-Pekka Salonen stunned the music world when he announced that he would step off the podium of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to devote his life to his first love, composition. Thus, a Salonen concert (at least one that does not include his own compositions) is a rarity in New York, happening only a few times per season. On Saturday afternoon at Carnegie Hall, an eager audience gathered to hear his take on two repertory warhorses: Schumann's Symphony No. 3 ("Rhenish") and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, a sprawling, valedictory work that was almost catalogued as that composer's Symphony No. 9.



This concert was the second of three this week featuring Mr. Salonen at the helm of the MET Orchestra, an ensemble better known as the pit band at a little opera house up the street. It is always unusual to hear these players devote themselves to so-called concert music, and the rich, dark sound of their horns, woodwinds and strings show the tender and careful care that has been applied under the administration of James Levine. That said, given Mr. Levine's recent medical issues, it was odd to to see the able-bodied Mr. Salonen, dancing on the podium and leading the players.

The concert opened with the five-movement Schumann piece, a work that celebrates the art and culture of northern Germany with epic slabs of horns and brass. The players sounded off in the opening statement of the noble main theme, with the timpani just a little bit too rough-and-tumble with the brass. However, at a cadence, coherence was found and the movements went ahead in brisk and business-like fashion. Mr. Salonen devotes his energies to modern works and the music of the 20th century, and it was unusual to hear him tackle this romantic masterwork.

The famous fourth movement was the highlight here, an epic depiction of the majestic Cologne Cathedral and the pomp and ceremony that accompanied the crowning of an archbishop. Here, the Met brass showed the benefits of playing so many Ring cycles, as they created a looming crescendo of sound that broke in a majestic wave. The finale was exciting and entirely more coherent than the opening, with conductor and ensemble on the same page in its whizzing final bars.

There have been endless arguments both on this blog and elsewhere about the exact nature of Das Lied von der Erde. It is a symphony of sorts with six movements, setting German translations of Chinese poetry found in the volume The Chinese Flute. Tenor and alto take turns with the movements, which make strict demands on each singer, never allowing them to sing together. Mahler himself, a superstitious man, tried to "cheat" the "curse" of the Ninth Symphony by changing the title of this work to "The Song of the Earth" and making his tenth symphony his actual "Ninth." It didn't work: he died young anyway.

First up was heldentenor Stuart Skelton, who burst into the juicy opening song ("Das trinklied vom Jammer der Erde") with the determination of a very thirsty man. The big tenor sang with bright power and tone, coasting over the swells and surges in the orchestra and showing great control of his instrument in the quietest passages. This skill served him well in the later songs, as the sprightly "Von der jugend" danced along to a chamber-music tune and "Der Trunkene im Fr├╝hling" teetered to its close.

Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill had the tougher assignment, including the sprawling finale "Der Abschied." This, a setting of two separate poems divided by some of Mahler's most modern orchestral ideas, requires great sustain and control from the singer. Ms. Cargill was somber in tone, finaly reaching a smooth and glowing radiance in the very last bars, Mr. Salonen may be devoted to his own music these days, but in this concert his Mahler proved that he has few equals. 

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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.