Apropos chill: At the Philharmonic last week there was bad Grieg (the first suite of Peer Gynt music; why, in God’s name?) and worse Sibelius (the Violin Concerto, luridly tarted up in Midori‘s overnuanced reading). Esa-Pekka Salonen didn’t make it in time for the downbeat; at intermission people were swapping I-10 traffic horror stories. The Grieg was led by the Philharmonic‘s assistant conductor, the excellent Yasuo Shinozaki, but this is music you or I could conduct blindfolded. Why, as long as we’re blindfolded, are there so many bad romantic concertos in D minor? Just asking.
After intermission there came Carl Nielsen‘s Fifth Symphony, and now you know why I was there. This is music from 1922, about the same time as the Ives Celestial Railroad, and in some ways equally rambunctious. The sounds of distant battle inform the work; within the orchestra there are arguments between winds and brass, or among the brass themselves, that seem to want to tear the music apart. Out front there is, of all Ivesian touches, a solo snare drum -- the Philharmonic’s Perry Dreiman beating an insistent tattoo, challenging the rest of the players to join in, responding sarcastically when they refuse. At the end the ghost of Brahms, perhaps even of Mahler, sweeps across the battlefield.
Wonderful, strange music, this. Salonen spoke briefly, wittily, about the essence of the music, its conflicts and its resolutions. When he talks about music, he almost invariably makes better sense than the official pre-concert jabberwocky upstairs. Then he conducts the music, and that, too, makes sense. This was a great performance; more Nielsen, please.