Salonen, CSO take flight with fiery new concerto and magnificent Sibelius

Fri Feb 25, 2011 at 2:00 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Soloist Leila Josefowicz and composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen take a bow after the performance of Salonen’s Violin Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Between Riccardo Muti’s second medical leave and the revolving roster of guest conductors, podium consistency has been a sometime thing so far in 2011 at Orchestra Hall.

Yet Thursday night with the return of Esa-Pekka Salonen, local audiences had the real thing, with the Finnish conductor leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the premiere of his own Violin Concerto and an electrifying performance of Sibelius that provided a highlight of this season.

The first program of his two-week CSO residency—Salonen will also lead the Civic Orchestra Monday night—showcased both sides of the Finnish musician’s career as composer as well as conductor.

Salonen’s Violin Concerto is a CSO co-commission along with New York City Ballet and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  The concerto was premiered in L.A.  in 2009 with Leila Josefowicz as soloist, who was also the solo protagonist Thursday night.

Salonen, 52, said he wanted to “cover as wide a range of expression as I could imagine” in the course of the concerto. The music certainly accomplishes that in a work the composer says is “a kind of summary of my experiences as a musician and as a human being at the watershed age of fifty.”

Cast in four movements, the concerto begins with Mirage, the violin soloist entering alone quietly with neo-Baroque figurations, as if the audience is eavesdropping on a conversation already taking place. The orchestra gradually makes its way into the argument with luminous high percussion and sudden rich gleaming chords in music of coiled, nervous energy. At one point the brilliant solo figurations are echoed by the orchestra’s strings in some of the fastest symphonic music one is ever likely to hear.

The music slows and comes to a rest on a held D, which leads directly into the second movement, Pulse I. Here Josefowicz plays hushed, mysterious fragments against a heartbeat-like pulse from the timpani, the violin morphing into longer phrases in a high-lying cantilena. The ensuing Pulse II is a wild ride, hectic, insanely bravura writing for the soloist against pop- and rock-like riffs in the orchestra with perhaps an affectionately satiric element in music Salonen says was inspired by California.

The composer has stated that the final movement, Adieu, was not meant as a specific farewell to anything, but it’s hard not to get the sense that Salonen is bidding goodbye to Los Angeles, where he led the L.A. Philharmonic for 17 years (the concerto premiered on his penultimate program as music director). There is a more lyrical section with some nostalgic expression amid brass statements and pounding timpani with one section having a film-noirish element. The searching music seems to pass through some dark moments before the concerto reaches its optimistic conclusion on a gleaming and radiant major chord.

The concerto is scored for large orchestra with huge confidence and panache. (Percussionist Cynthia Yeh at one point is almost entombed in a wall of gongs like the ill-fated subject of Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado.) While Salonen has already revised this work, the final movement could yet stand some slight trimming, with the music meandering just a little too long.

Still, Salonen’s Violin Concerto is characteristic of his finest music—engaging, individual  and effective. Like most composers of his generation, there is a rock-edged virtuosity to it, the work at times suggesting a kind of heavy-metal violin concerto.

Salonen credits Josefowicz as a partner in the process of writing this concerto for her, and said the end result is as much a portrait of her as of himself. Josefowicz, clad in a diaphanous blue outfit, is a champion of contemporary works, and the Canadian violinist brought full-metal virtuosity and staggering technique to this Chicago premiere in a blistering, combustible performance with equally bravura support by the orchestra. The concert was warmly received by the audience Thursday night with prolonged applause for the soloist and the composer-conductor.

It’s something of a cliche to impute a natural empathy to artists in music of their home country. Still, it was hard to avoid that feeling of idiomatic rightness in the gripping and magnificent account of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 delivered by the Finnish conductor and the CSO Thursday night.

Nothing was idiosyncratic or particularly unusual in Salonen’s direction of this richly eloquent music. Yet there was a dark elemental grandeur in this performance allied to a robust, plain-spoken expression—particularly in the rustic folk flavor of the full-voiced woodwinds. The natural flow and vivid impact were there from the first bar to the stirring coda, the evocative wind skirls and jagged brass phrases conveying the austere power of the Northern landscape.

The CSO musicians were clearly responsive to their guest conductor and gave Salonen everything he asked for with sumptuous textures and big-boned playing that was also elegant and nuanced as in the terraced dynamics of the double-basses at the opening of the Andante.

The evening began with Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Here Salonen’s balletic direction sans baton coaxed a spacious atmospheric performance with unerringly sensitive solo work by flutist Mathieu Dufour, as one would expect, as well as clarinetist John Bruce Yeh and concertmaster Robert Chen.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday.; 312-294-3000.

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