Support independent arts journalism by joining our Patreon! Currently $5/month.

About Superconductor

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.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Concert Review: Vocation or Avocation?

Esa-Pekka Salonen brings back his Cello Concerto.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
And usually just a t-shirt: Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Photo by Laurie Lewis.
In recent years, Esa-Pekka Salonen declared himself to be more interested in composition than the daily drudgeries of running a major symphony orchestra. However, his recent slate of podium appearances with the Philharmonia Orchestra indicate that Mr. Salonen's baton has lost none of its bite. On Monday night, Mr. Salonen led the Philharmonia (which he will depart from in 2020 for a job with the San Francisco Symphony) in the second of two concerts at Lincoln Center this week, with his own Cello Concerto flanked by orchestral works by Sibelius and Stravinsky.

The concert opened with The Oceanides, whoch is the only major orchestral work written by the composer Jean Sibelius for an American audience. Unlike the majority of Sibelius tone poems that are inspired by Finnish mythology, this piece finds its inspiration in the stories of the Greek Titans that created the seas of the world. Mr. Salonen, who like many of his countrymen has a special regard for the music of Sibelius, sculpted swirls and eddies of sound.  Great crescendos of strings and brass surged and rolled from the orchestra. At its climax he seemed to dance, his baton flicking upward to create great breaking waves.

Mr. Salonen's concerto is in three unlabeled movements, written, as the composer explains in "concentrated, concentric circles." It had its New York premiere in 2017 with the Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert and Yo-Yo Ma. Here the soloist was the less famous but very skilled Truls Mørk. The cello takes the usual role of protagonist against the protest of the vast orchestra, coming in against a shimmering wall of strings, winds and percussion. (That last was augmented by two congas and a set of bongos to the right of the conductor, which would become important later.) Mr. Mørk played thematic fragmentary ideas that were answered by pulsing percussion and strings above and below the through-line of the soloist.

The second movement offers a high-tech innovation: a taped loop made from Mr. Mørk's initial thematic statement. This signal is processed into a set of carefully placed speakers, giving this music a quadraphonic feel reminiscent of old Pink Floyd concerts. As the cello signal circles above, behind and below the listener, the orchestra offered a glittering accompaniment to this display. The odd thing about this music, one might note is that like Mr. Salonen's recent Violin Concerto, it sounds perpetually fresh to the ear, even if one had heard it before or listened to the recent Sony Classical recording with Mr. Ma.

The bongos and conga are crucial to the final movement. The principal percussionist of the Philharmonia played these instruments with his hands, generating a storm of rhythms that were answered and eventually exceeded by the utterances of the cello itself. The work ended with a flurry of virtuosic cadenzas, and a final whirl of the complicated electronic sound system around the hall. At this, Mr. Salonen turned and conducted directly at the speakers as the sound-signal faded to a final silence.

The concert ended with the complete score of Stravinsky's Firebird. The conductor took a personal approach to the tempos of this many-sectioned ballet, slowing to examine certain critical passages of orchestration and generating whip-crack chords that punctuate the fantastical landscapes. The finale, with its signature horn solo and outbursts of general orchestral rejoicing was taken very fast indeed, but had a certain brilliant majesty as the music crashed through its final, triumphant chords.

"Are the trains running?" Mr. Salonen asked the audience in the middle of bows. Being assured that they were, the conductor offered his audience a rare encore. This was the shimmering Le jardin féerique from Ravel's Ma Mere l'Oye. Although this charming work sounded odd out of its normal orchestral context, there was no arguing with the impressionist washes of texture and glittering ornamentation that makes it one of Ravel's most charming creations.

If you enjoyed this article, it's time to click over to Superconductor's Patreon page, and help support the cost of independent music journalism in New York City at the low cost of just $5/month.

Trending on Superconductor


Share My Blog!

Share |

Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats