Salonen, cellist Kanneh-Mason strike sparks at Philharmonic

Thu May 02, 2024 at 1:54 pm
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the New York Philharmonic and cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason Wednesday night. Photo: Brandon Patoc

Like college freshman roommates paired up by some unseen dean, Shostakovich’s acerbic, past-Stalinist Cello Concerto No. 1 shared quarters on Wednesday’s New York Philharmonic program with one of the founding documents of musical romanticism, Berlioz’s extravagant Symphonie fantastique.

What can we learn from this odd coupling? For starters, this kind of “two-shot” program has a lot to recommend it. The listener jumps right into the meat of the program, pauses to reflect—or doesn’t, as in the intermission-less concerts of recent pandemic times—then presses on to the end. Quick and effective!

(This might be bad news for present-day composers, who often provide the shorter piece that occupies the “overture” slot on traditional orchestral programs. The solution: Commission longer pieces.)

Specifically, Wednesday’s concert, smartly conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, demonstrated that, no matter the style or the period of the music, an orchestra that is consistently “on” from first note to last, not coasting through some parts, can lock the listener in to enthralling performances.

How better to start an evening of music than with cello soloist Sheku Kanneh-Mason tapping out the sardonic little four-note motive that will haunt Shostakovich’s entire concerto?  Immediately Salonen and the Philharmonic winds were striking sparks off Kanneh-Mason’s crisp scales, and the movement’s bracing atmosphere was established.

Sticking to the composer’s indicated Allegretto tempo—rather than faster ones favored by some cellists, including the work’s dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich—emphasized the airy energy and transparency of Shostakovich’s score. The horn stepped as lively as the saucy piccolo.

The central Moderato, a deep-toned lament for strings punctuated by the gleaming horn, changed the scene entirely. Kanneh-Mason sang out on his part simply at first, but later took up the strings’ theme and passionately made it his own—only to be silenced by a powerful orchestral crescendo and left to haunt the movement’s coda in ghostly harmonics.

Alone with its thoughts, Kanneh-Mason’s cello mused quietly but arrestingly in a transitional cadenza that swelled in fluid double-stops before accelerating into the Allegro con moto finale. Piccolo and timpani joined in a hot dance with the soloist’s fast, incisive passagework. Salonen drew such articulate, well-tuned playing from the winds that one almost didn’t mind that they masked the hard-working soloist at times. In any case, the brilliant coda was very much a joint effort.

Kanneh-Mason’s well-projected, characterful performance earned him warm applause and an encore, the soulful Prelude No. 18 for solo cello by Shostakovich’s close friend Mieczysław Weinberg.

If Shostakovich, the half-submerged Soviet artist, still keeps us guessing about the meaning of his music, Berlioz left no such doubts about the Symphonie fantastique. His almost bar-by-bar description of the events depicted in that work has been reprinted in a thousand concert programs and dissected in as many college classes on “program music.” 

One wishes one could un-read all those words about “a young musician afflicted with the vague des passions…in the midst of the tumult of a party…he hears in the distance two shepherds…he is condemned and led to the scaffold…he sees himself at the witches’ sabbath…” and just hear the Symphonie as a dazzling, evocative piece of music.

If that were possible, Salonen and the Philharmonic’s lucid, engaged performance would be a good place to start. From the gathering of enigmatic sting phrases at the start to the panting, surging allegro and the enchanting vision of the idée fixe, Salonen steered the players through this familiar score with just the right amount of constant, expressive podium action.

In the much-debated acoustics of David Geffen Hall, the efflorescence of four harps and string tremolo that launched the waltz movement was magical, and Berlioz’s distinctive scoring for winds came through bright and clear. Overall, Salonen’s rendering was sonically rich, if a little rushed in places.

In contrast, the conductor let the “Scene in the Fields,” with its leisurely piping across broad spaces, be as static as it wanted to be, but kept a steady pulse in the developing Adagio, holding together the layers of strings, horn, and woodwinds. Audience coughing unfortunately marred the fine tuning and tapering of high strings and winds as the movement faded to a pianissimo close.

There was no rushing in the “March to the Scaffold” either, its bloodlust first sublimated in a jaunty tune, then erupting in brass outbursts, heavy with two tubas. Inexorable but in no hurry, Salonen and the players seemed to revel in the fatal spectacle.

The “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” gathered amid mutterings and lightning flashes, the jeering of an E-flat clarinet, tubas intoning the Dies irae over funeral bells, rattling skeletons in col legno violins, and thumping dance rhythms. Salonen marshaled all this infernal action and kept it moving right to the final blare of brass and a well-earned ovation.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

One Response to “Salonen, cellist Kanneh-Mason strike sparks at Philharmonic”

  1. Posted May 05, 2024 at 5:31 am by Michael Sherwin

    This is an accurate and favorable review of the performance we heard one night previously. The encore is identified; it matched the mood of the Concerto. The Hebraic slow mmovement of the concertos quotes the Yiddish folk song, “Zoom goli goli; a daringly taunting the antisemitic Russian government.

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