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Mr. Salonen: Metaphors Be With You

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
03/11/2019 -  
Jean Sibelius: The Oceanides, Opus 73
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Cello Concerto
Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird

Truls Mørk (Cellist)
The Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (Conductor)

E.-P. Salonen

March has indeed come in like the redoubtable lion. Mighty orchestras, powerful performers, commanding conductors, music which rarely sinks to entertainment. Yes, a few problems, of course. But in the main, visits to Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center or the 92st Y have provided us with the same exhalations as we feel with the crisp early-March weather.

Last night’s performance with Esa-Pekka Salonen and London’s Philharmonia Orchestra was certainly amongst the mightiest. To the unhappiness of the Philharmonia, he is leaving them soon, to replace the seemingly irreplaceable San Francisco Orchestra conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas. The Bayside ensemble needed a conductor who comes near to the Tilson Thomas personality and virtuosity with the esoteric and exoteric, and Mr. Salonen fits that bill entirely.

He proved it last night with three works sharing a sharing a mutual greatness in scope. Sibelius, Stravinsky and, yes, Mr. Salonen’s works were vastly different in form. But all three composers, under the Salonen baton, became music for the ages.

The opening Sibelius Oceanides joined another Sibelius rarity, Kullervo by the New York Oratorio Society two weeks ago. Oceanides, composed on an ocean liner, is the ten-minute equivalent of what it takes John Luther Adams 90 minutes to accomplish: to give the feeling of Ocean with a sweep, with a deep dark texture, with the sounds of seabirds (those gorgeous Philharmonia flutes). And like the ocean itself, like the Biblical universe, without form.

Yet Mr. Salonen gave to his countryman vivid climaxes, some where we least expected. Yes, the Sibelius brass augmented the string choirs, but it was the violin section itself which pulsed with greatness, as the conductor leaned over to them and they presented the top of the wave itself, dashing into the sea.

More Finnish music followed, this Mr. Salonen’s own Cello Concerto. I heard the work first with its dedicatee, Yo-Yo Ma, and the New York Philharmonic, and it was a stunning performance. Also, a puzzling one for an initial hearing. Mr. Salonen had given the cello so many inventive sounds, had given Mr. Ma so many near-impossible measures, that one was stunned more by its innovation than its splendid creation.

T. Mørk (© Johs Boe)

The great Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk was the soloist here, so one was prepared to hear the music rather than the great effects. Like Sibelius, Mr. Salonen knows how to bring order out of chaos, and the initial orchestral deftly-composed bedlam was brought to order quickly by Mr. Mørk’s instrument. At this point, the music became less gorgeous special effects and more...well, with more familiarity, more human. Not just the breaking cello part, but another theme which the composer called a kind of “comet”.

This, alas, hardly does credit to Mr. Salonen’s inspiration. The comet is an icy fragment, which, with the warmth of the sun, becomes flatulent and gassy. The Cello Concerto is light and part of a musical cosmos, since Mr. Salonen does what Sibelius could never do.

Sibelius’ massive orchestral forces sound like massive orchestral forces. Mr. Salonen’s textures–including percussion, including electronic sounds, including a cello so well balanced with the orchestra–are, if not diaphanous , always distinct. Audiences love the extrovert third movement, with brooding and bongos, with the sense of reaching out. But oh, what Mr. Salonen does with the celesta, harp and cello in the second movement! The results are more “comet-ic” than the opening. These were the sounds of another universe. There was no reason to look for musical logic. One heard sounds which, let’s face it, were not of this universe.

As for Mr. Mørk, he reached those inconceivable high notes (a high B flat on the A string) with ease, his fingers immaculately played triple-glissandos, he could be deeply melodious or even playful. In sum, though, the endless inventions of Mr. Salonen produced a 38-minute work which never outlasted its length, whose originality vied with its absolutely ravishing textures.

As for The Firebird, one cannot describe it, save in insufficient metaphors, unmusical similes. Mr. Salonen was both vital and volatile in the complete score. He could startle us with a trumpet solo from the balcony, he could lift up the blood pressure with the “Infernal Dance” or lure us into a sensual Elysium with the “Round Dance”. In those movements which are omitted from the Firebird Suites, he gave us the drama of the stage.

Perhaps Berlioz wrote the Treatise on Instrumentation, but every part of Mr. Salonen’s Firebird gave light to the Philharmonia’s orchestral genius. The honors go to solos by Concertmaster Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, to the primordial timpani beats by Antoine Siguré, to Nigel Black’s fluid horn solos, in fact to every member of this orchestra.

Most of all to Esa-Pekka Salonen. On a personal level, orchestra love him for his generosity (he introduced virtually everybody during the well-deserved adulations). On a musical level, he gave us the most earth-shattering music of the 20th Century. Firebird is a Slavic myth, but in Stravinsky’s pen, it became a universal drama, equal to King Lear and the Inferno. Mr. Salonen took Stravinsky’s revolutionary ballet and translated it to a work bursting with both mysticism and tragedy.

Harry Rolnick



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