Salonen, Ma and CSO deliver 20th-century sound and fury

Fri Feb 26, 2016 at 1:52 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Yo-Yo Ma performed Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1 with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. File photo: Todd Rosenberg

Yo-Yo Ma performed Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. File photo: Todd Rosenberg

Yo-Yo Ma, of course, is the main draw for many in this week’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts at Orchestra Hall. But with Esa-Pekka Salonen on the podium, one can be equally assured of a smart, thoughtful overall program as well.

The Finnish conductor’s visits are invariably among the most rewarding events of the CSO season, and so it proved again Thursday night, with a pair of 20th and 21st century works for large orchestra, along with Ma in the solo role.

The only major Chicago Symphony commission of recent decades to be represented in this retrospective 125th anniversary season, Witold Lutoslawski’s Symphony No. 3 was premiered by the CSO under Sir Georg Solti in 1983. Daniel Barenboim performed and recorded the symphony nine years later, but, amazingly, it hasn’t been played by the orchestra since, an incomprehensibly long interval for a seminal work by one of the greatest of 20th-century composers.

In his introductory remarks, Salonen spoke touchingly of Lutoslawski and the influence the Polish composer had in his life. The conductor has long been a committed advocate of Lutoslawski; he commissioned and premiered his Fourth Symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and has recorded the composer’s complete symphonies.

Scored for huge orchestra with a Brobdingnagian percussion arsenal, the symphony is in two connected movements. The work is launched with a pounding metallic four-note motif that resembles the famous opening motto of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and recurs throughout the symphony.

Lutoslawski reconciles his late style with the traditional genre, carving out a distinctive individual approach to large-scale symphonic structure. Salonen mentioned that Lutoslawski had lost close family members to both the Bolsheviks and the Nazis, and he posited that there is an unstated program of sorts that reflects that tragic history (though the composer himself never acknowledged one).

Regardless, this is music of uncommon power and dramatic intensity. The shorter opening section is more impressionistic, the music swirling with the theme reappearing at intervals as narrative signposts. There are several striking episodes along the way, as with a recurring dialogue between two clarinets. Like violent, storm-tossed waves, the roiling textures rise, descend, quieten, chatter and explode anew.

The oscillating bursts of sonic ferocity are quelled in the final section, as a noble horn theme emerges and the music takes on a warmth and resolution, the motto hammered out one final time, this time with a gaunt, hard-won defiance.

Salonen is without peer in Lutoslawski’s music, and he directed the vast forces with a firm yet flexible hand, keeping strong momentum in music that can turn a bit discursive. The orchestra responded to music they can rightly lay claim to, with playing of total commitment and seismic power. Kudos especially to the battery of percussion players who delivered Lutoslawski’s frenzied tumult with extraordinary impact.

Like Lutoslawski, Salonen likes to draw on the widest possible instrumental resources, as shown in his Foreign Bodies. Cast in three sections, the 2000 work is scored for nearly as large an ensemble as the symphony that preceded it. The triple-meaning title is a framework for music that really dances. There is an irresistible quality to Salonen’s best music and the joyous sonic fury was put across with full-metal panache under the composer’s direction.

It’s a credit to Yo-Yo Ma’s artistry that coming after these two flamboyant works for huge forces, there was no sense of anticlimax in the CSO creative consultant’s performance of the more modestly scored Cello Concerto No. 1 of Shostakovich.

The soloist found a tougher, more astringent style apt for this brooding, mordant work. Ma dug deep into his strings with hard bowing in the darkly ironic energy of the opening movement, even allowing some occasional roughness in the process. The cellist was at his communicative best in the spare rumination of the slow movement, spinning out the somber threnody of the solo line and winnowing his tone down to a slender sliver of glowing string tone.

The cadenza linking to the finale has lost some impact due to the concerto’s familiarity, but Ma made it seem uncommonly fresh, charting the solo line from a lost searching expression to gradual awakening and resurgence with a grim determination. Taken at a faster tempo than usual, the hard-driving finale went with blistering energy, soloist and conductor ratcheting up the aggressive drive to the coda.

Salonen drew an accompaniment from the orchestra just as taut and virtuosic as the playing of his soloist, with boldly projected horn obbligato playing by Daniel Gingrich. This close musical partnership between the two men bodes well for next season when Ma will give the world premiere of Salonen’s Cello Concerto with the CSO.

The generous program led off with Beethoven’s King Stephen Overture. Salonen led a tight flexible performance that found a surprising degree of antic humor in the alternation between the dramatic statements and the ditzy music box-like theme for winds.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.; 312-294-3000.

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