Salonen leads Philharmonic in his new concerto and world-class Beethoven

Thu Feb 09, 2023 at 1:32 pm
Anthony McGill was the clarinet soloist in the U.S. premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s kínēma, with the composer conducting the New York Philharmonic Wednesday night. Photo: Chris Lee

The New York Philharmonic’s Wednesday night concert in David Geffen Hall was an unexpected mix of humor and seriousness with each coming in some unexpected places. 

Start with the hall itself; classical concerts are not usually known for wit (although the history of the music is full of it), but guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen brought in a bit of mischievous programming, and also pulled out some—possibly unintended—humor in his own music. Finishing it all off was an involving and invigorating performance of a classic work, one that benefits from some lightness, at least in spirit.

The quirks were that the overture was a Luciano Berio “superimposition” over Boccherini, while the concerto was Salonen’s kínēma for Solo Clarinet and String Orchestra, with Philharmonic principal clarinetist Anthony McGill leading the U.S. premiere of the piece. After intermission, the concert finished with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

The full title of the opening work is Four Original Versions of Ritirata notturna di Madrid (Nocturnal Retreat from Madrid) by L. Boccherini, Superimposed and Transcribed for Orchestra, and credited to both Boccherini and Berio. It is a collaboration across the eras between the two composers, in the same concept as Berio’s Sinfonia and Folk Songs, but with a very different sprit—the point is charm, Berio passing along his own pleasure in Boccherini’s tune. The original was popular in its time and Boccherini produced many versions, which Berio transcribed and literally piled on top of each other, hence the “superimposition.

The tune is a pleasure, concise with a graceful rise and fall, and the confection offers a rare opportunity to hear Boccherini played nice and loud by a large modern orchestra. By placing these versions on top of each other, Berio produced something not far from Tex Avery, with the original spatial concept of a marching band. c. 1780, passing through the streets. Here, the sound of snare drums talking?? the orchestra, with a barely suppressed glee, are like Bugs Bunny shadowing Elmer Fudd, ready to spring. It may be lighthearted, but putting centuries and cultural experiences on top of one another is profound, and the sheer charm made for a great opener.

Salonen introduced his own work by grounding it in his own experience of the early stages of the COVID pandemic, working both in isolation and fiddling with his first attempt at a film score; he ultimately demurred,  saying the movie, made by a friend, was “45% sex scenes” and he wasn’t up to scoring that.

Parts of  kínēma, written for the Finnish Radio Symphony, came out of that, but the music didn’t come across as cinematic. Instead, with McGill’s firm, ravishing tone, the best of the music came off as deeply personal, with some of the loveliest and most elegant phrases and melodic lines one has heard from Salonen filling the four outer sections. The middle of the five sections, “Pérotin Dream,” is the one lively, fast part of this piece.

The most successful parts of the work are where one seemed to hear into Salonen’s ruminative imagination, with snatches of a Rautavaara cadence here, and in the fast music, glances at John Adams’ Chamber Concerto (more cartoon music there). But these were momentary and fragmented, as the piece meandered without any particular direction or point, caught in some confusion. This was not unpleasant, but neither did it grab the attention, perhaps that confusion and very lack of clarity best captures the feeling of Spring, 2020. 

Regardless, this was another exceptional performance by McGill. Beyond the plain gorgeousness of his tone, in itself compelling and expressive, he played with the sense he was moved by the music, even as the piece itself didn’t direct him to meaningful places. This is a challenging part, with many leaps into the altissimo register that he handled with excellent intonation, and the fast movement is a study in just how clearly a clarinetist can play complex, rapid lines. The answer was, not just cleanly but with force.

Salonen has a clear affinity for Beethoven’s Seventh, and this is the third time one has seen him lead this work, with three different orchestras. Each time has been excellent, and Wednesday’s might have been the finest.

This is a great symphony that doesn’t often get a great performance. Even the best orchestras seem too big and heavy for music that needs to feel lithe, even in its darkest and heaviest moments. The solution is obvious, but there must be some magic in implementing it because Salonen produces and maintains momentum in this symphony like no other conductor.

Momentum is the key. The grand opening, as stately as it seems, needs to always be anticipating the next chord and statement, while the incredible Allegretto, as moving as it is, has to be faster than a walking pace. Wednesday, there was great bounce in the opening movement and a superb contrast between a dry, even blunt feeling in the main section of the Allegretto and a sweet and moody sense in the middle part.

The final two movements make or break a performance, and these were tremendous. The Presto demands energy, pace, and technique, and the orchestra was masterful in all these.

In the Allegro con brio finale, Salonen keep driving. His leadership was direct and clear, even relaxed, not hectic, and the pace was fantastic, keeping up the dance feeling but just short of frenzy, fast and never heavy. In the final moments, as the music descends into murk before rising in triumph, the feeling of momentum remained strong and clear. This was as good as the Beethoven Seventh gets.

This program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m. Friday, and 8 p.m. Saturday.

One Response to “Salonen leads Philharmonic in his new concerto and world-class Beethoven”

  1. Posted Feb 11, 2023 at 8:59 pm by Douglas Dye

    I was in attendance at the Friday morning performance and I can say that the audience was mesmerized by the entire concert. Friday morning audiences are wonderful because you have many senior citizens but also a number of high school students. I can say emphatically that this concert was enthusiastically received by the entire audience.

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