Salonen’s practice brings near perfection to Philharmonic program

Thu Oct 31, 2013 at 12:12 pm
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the New York Philharmonic in music of Ravel, Salonen and Sibelius Wednesday night at Avery Fisher Hall. Photo: Katja Tähjä

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the New York Philharmonic in music of Ravel, Salonen and Sibelius Wednesday night at Avery Fisher Hall. Photo: Katja Tähjä

Symphony orchestras and conductors never have enough time to rehearse. It’s a testament to the high level of their musicianship that concert programs that change every week come off as well as they generally do.

It must be immensely harder for visiting conductors, with even less time and the added obstacle of communicating with people who are often strangers. So Esa-Pekka Salonen’s rehearsals earlier this week with the New York Philharmonic must have been models of insight and efficiency, because the concert he led Wednesday night – his own Violin Concerto, with soloist Leila Josefowicz; Ravel’s Ma Mere l’Oye suite; and the Sibelius Symphony No. 5 – had the technical polish, expression and exploration of meaning that come from deep practice and familiarity.

In one sense, it was anodyne programming: an overture-type piece, a concerto, a symphony after intermission. In another sense it was a remarkably ambitious concert with nothing but music from the last hundred years and a new work unfamiliar to the musicians. Yet the evening was almost entirely fulfilling, exciting and moving.

Ma Mere l’Oye served as the opener and the quality of this Ravel performance would have highlighted most other concerts. The skill and sensitivity of the orchestral playing alone was deeply affecting. Salonen had clear ideas and a purpose for each phrase and gesture, and every moment of the music had meaning.

The intonation and balances of the ensemble were so fine that they had the transparency of a chamber group, the definition of great Ravel playing. Musicianship this beautiful allows the score to speak with clarity and simplicity, the composer’s inherent charm and poignancy were made more piquant by reminding one why his music deserves to be heard regularly.

Salonen’s Violin Concerto has already enjoyed remarkable success, with a recording and the 2012 Grawemeyer prize. Wednesday night marked the concerto’s New York concert premiere, Salonen having led it at the New York City Ballet in 2010.

The work is an aesthetic companion to John Adams’ equally successful Violin Concerto, both centered around a demanding, perpetuum mobile solo line. Josefowicz is a personal connection for both composers: Salonen wrote his piece around her, and she is a regular soloist in Adams’ concerto and his electric-violin concerto Dharma at Big Sur. In February she will be premiering a new Adams work.

Leila Josefowicz

Leila Josefowicz

Adams’ piece meanders in a stream-of-consciousness way, with a dream-like middle movement and a toccata to finish. Salonen’s starts in a similar way, but ends up creating a non-traditional structure. The dashing opening movement, “Mirage,” hangs the virtuosic solo part on a clear rhythmic pattern, full of accents on the downbeat. A flurry of notes can tire the ear, but Salonen shapes the activity into phrases that anchor moment-to-moment listening to patterns that have already gone by.

The basic style is antiphonal, and in the first movement the orchestra responds with rich, deep-bottomed chords that envelope the listener. The sonorities connect to Sibelius, just as the colors of bells and harp connect to Ravel, even though overall Salonen’s dense orchestration is the opposite, too much so at times.

The second movement, “Pulse I,” is quietly static and ends while one is craving more, setting up the disappointing “Pulse II” third movement. Salonen, in his irreverent program notes, says “This music is bizarre and urban, heavily leaning towards popular culture with traces of (synthetic) folk music.” The sound, to experienced ears, is observed rather than felt, uncannily like West Side Story but without the grit and panache.

It pleased the crowd though, and led to a churning, dramatically clichéd opening section of the final movement. The music stakes claim to a grandiosity that is ill-fitting. After a loud passage, the music quiets and calms and is once again effective. The violin speaks simply above a series of chords that seem to drift on a mysterious but powerful logic. Salonen describes the ending as unexpected. It’s a major chord with a ravishing sonority like the cool silver of an enormous wind chime, and while it appears out of the blue it sounds like the logical end of the entire piece and clears earlier misgivings from memory.

Josefowicz clearly believes in this music and her playing shows how deeply the concerto matters to her. The solo part is intensely demanding and the combination of effort and skill gave her playing a visceral immediacy. Her musicianship was most impressive when she went from dense, high-velocity passages to pealing sustained tones, saying even more with less.

The performance of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5 was uniquely exciting. Salonen urged each phrase and measure along, connecting musical moments to the larger structure. This is epic, Brucknerian music, especially the first movement with it’s profound gestures connected by sequences of chords. Salonen slowly built the tension in the first movement to an explosive climax, a thrilling expression of energy, like a young man running to leap off a cliff’s edge.

The second movement is one of Sibelius’ great passages of lyricism, with a hidden minuet and trio. Salonen had the orchestra expressing the rhythms to the point it seemed danceable. The great, complementary chordal pendulums of brass and strings in the final movement had the magnificent sound of swaying planets.

At the close, Salonen held the silence between the final six chords for an extra beat, then another, then another. The first pause seemed impossibly long, the second audacious. By the third, they couldn’t be long enough. The final chord was Janus-faced, the culmination of a stirring and satisfying concert, and a note of regret that is was over. Salonen had not rehearsed the audience, but he controlled them nonetheless through the music.

This program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Salonen leads the New York Philharmonic’s CONTACT! series in a program of his own music 7:30 p.m. Monday.

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