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Super Conductor 

Thursday, Feb 17 2005
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Photo by Kasskara / DG
ESA-PEKKA IN EXCELSIS

If anyone needed further confirmation of the strengths of Esa-Pekka Salonen, and his success in sharing those strengths with the musical life of this city, the events of the past week should answer any lingering questions. Those events included performances with the Philharmonic of huge and demanding orchestral works familiar and otherwise, and other works of high quality composed by Salonen himself. There was also a personal affirmation by Salonen, in the presence of well-fed members of the local and national press at a well-laid brunch, that — contrary to the much-reported attitudes of other symphonic conductors toward their managements, their orchestral players and their public — Maestro Salonen apparently likes life in Los Angeles and is willing to keep at it for another term of contract, maybe more. Imagine: A happy conductor; what will they think of next?

All of this, along with the announcement of next season’s musical fare, which immeasurably enriched the state of mind at the aforementioned gathering of press freeloaders, adds up to thrilling news — the more so in the face of the outpourings of doom ’n’ gloom from many of the musical establishments beyond the mountains: James Levine’s ill health in Boston, Lorin Maazel’s lousy press in New York, acoustics in Philadelphia’s new hall. (Only Cleveland’s orchestra, apparently, thrives — for anyone, that is, who might want to live in Cleveland.)

Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder began Salonen’s wonder week, with its four harps downstage, 10 horns up back and other performing forces of comparable size. The work survives on its composer’s name; it throbs with the visionary monumental bloat that came into the Germanic musical language (and, fortunately, soon departed) right around the turn to the 20th century, leaving such works as this, the Mahler 8th and certain unmentionables by the likes of the Franz boys Schreker and Schmidt in its wake. There are beautiful moments among the love songs that make up the long first part, and the immensely sad contralto aria for the “Wood Dove,” which Lilli Paasikivi sang most touchingly, has a separate life as a concert piece. Salonen’s orchestra, deep and rich and bone-shaking, howled wondrously into every cranny of the hall, and Grant Gershon’s Master Chorale provided the proper added demonry. Two of the three performances were closed affairs, for the visiting members of a choral directors’ conference, which was curious since the big choral numbers in the piece come only at the end (which, to these ears, couldn’t have come too soon).

SIGNATURE TUNES

More convincing demons danced later in the week, on two programs with what might now be reckoned as Salonen signature tunes: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on Thursday and the Berlioz Fantastique on Saturday (in preparation for the orchestra’s next European tour). Both flourish under Salonen’s leadership. There is something in his unfolding of the opening measures of the Stravinsky, the hard-edged platelets of wind tone gradually moving apart and upward into Frank Gehry’s clear air space, that has come to define for me, in a microcosm, everything good about this hall — and the people who work in it. The Berlioz was no less marvelous: the thrusting string tone at the start, the phenomenal urging of the summoning bell at the end (but why was it moved offstage this year?). One complaint: Salonen left out the repeats this time. He shouldn’t have; every note of his performance is precious.

The real matter at hand on these two programs and a third one yet to come (on February 24) is the beautifully designed, well-fitting second hat worn by Salonen himself as one of our times’ major, serious composers. Conductors who compose are nothing new on the landscape. Elephantine bloats by the likes of Wilhelm Furtwängler and Bruno Walter belong among the sorry items cited two paragraphs ago; Leonard Bernstein’s symphonic ventures will gather dust while his stage shows continue to flourish. Salonen came to Los Angeles with a commendable repertory of a young man’s smart, craftsmanlike pieces that showed the touch of good teaching and good companionship. His music since his arrival has taken enormous forward strides; it is some of the most important music being composed anywhere in the world today, and the remarkable thing is that it gets better right along with his strengths as a conductor.

The L.A. Variations of 1997 was his giant step; it is now a repertory piece. It is the work of a master of orchestral practice, a knowing testimonial to the excellent state to which he had brought his own orchestra at that time. But it is also a work of musical mastery, a process piece that holds you in its grip as the variations unfold. The three works on the current “3 x Salonen” Mini-Festival follow logically. (I heard the first two, Wing on Wing and Mania, at last week’s concerts, and Insomnia — which is on the third program — from the new Deutsche Grammophon recording.)

Wing on Wing was wonderful to hear again live, breezing through the same hall and through the musical forces for which it was written, saddening to hear in its inferior preservation with its cramped, studio sound on the D.G. disc. I love its sparkle, its cold, clear wind. Wherever it may travel, with its amiable intrusions by the sampled voice of Frank Gehry, it remains our piece, Disney Hall’s piece, lightest of this “festival’s” three works, but a treasure. Mania draws the phenomenal cellist Anssi Karttunen into the mix, removing most of the orchestra (strings, especially) from his manic path.

When I first interviewed Salonen, soon after he began his career here, he seemed anxious to downplay the image of Sibelius, as Grandpa in the attic, the dark secret borne by all living Finnish musicians. The sense I get, in both Mania and the imperfect hearing of the thrilling Insomnia on disc (which I will write about again after the live performance) is that Salonen has found a way to extract at least one valuable aspect of Sibelius’ orchestral style, the wonderful headlong dash in, for example, the end of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony or again in the Seventh. Both these new pieces, it occurs to me on early acquaintance, seem to have found the way to make Grandpa respectable once again in polite society. That takes some doing.

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