Salonen and CSO show close rapport in worlds old and new

Fri Mar 04, 2011 at 3:56 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Esa-Pekka Salonen led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Wagner, Donatoni and Bruckner Thursday night.

Last week Esa-Pekka Salonen showed both sides of his musical arsenal as composer and conductor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a notable local premiere of his Violin Concerto with Leila Josefowicz as star soloist.

On Thursday night, the tables were, if not turned, slightly rearranged, with Salonen on the podium again but this time conducting a work written for him by Franco Donatoni, Esa (in caudi V).

His late Italian colleague was a composition teacher of Salonen’s and the Finnish composer-conductor provided a brief spoken introduction of the touching origins of this piece, Donatoni’s final work.

While very ill in 2000 and no longer able to write himself, Donatoni dictated Esa to his students from his bed in a Milan hospital. Months after he died, the score arrived in the mail to Salonen who had no idea the piece was completed. Salonen said he initially believed the music was a private gesture and too personal to perform, but later gave the premiere with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2001.

Donatoni began as a hardcore serialist, a Boulez disciple in his younger days who later became fascinated by the aleatoric elements of John Cage. Esa is scored for a huge orchestra with offbeat instrumentation including a harpsichord. The style is a kind of user-friendly Darmstadt, still tough and angular but with some whimsical imaginative touches like the winds’ loud trilling, marimba and xylophone solos and a final little harpsichord twist as Donatoni, said Salonen, “goes out with a wink.”

Clearly this 12-minute single movement has a close personal meaning for Salonen but I confess I didn’t find it so much joyous or cheerful, as he suggested, than loud and overemphatic. Certainly the music received gleaming and brilliant advocacy from the CSO with Salonen clarifying the busy textures skillfully.

The new work was framed by two Austro-German cornerstones, which provided the greater interest on this week’s program.

The striking thing about the sonority that Salonen elicits from the CSO is that the orchestra sounds exactly the way they should in this repertoire. Salonen led off with a bold, rich-toned performance of the Prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, here given ample weight and robust projection yet avoiding heaviness with a fresh, gamboling quality to the woodwinds in the middle section.

“Awesome!” was the cry from one overcaffeinated audience member immediately following the brassy coda of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, which closed the evening.

There was much to be admired in this performance of Bruckner’s hour-long work, to be sure. The CSO clearly has a fine rapport with Salonen and played magnificently for the Finnish conductor, some fitful burbles from the principal horn apart.

In music often played for volume and whipcrack dynamic contrasts, Salonen went the other way, emphasizing the music’s Viennese refinement. Textures were strikingly transparent with a light tonal sheen, well suited to Salonen’s bucolic approach that underlined the pastoral qualities, aided by some wonderful flute and clarinet playing by Mathieu Dufour and John Bruce Yeh. Mostly this was an organic and light-footed reading, shorn of monumentalism yet with plenty of incisive vigor in the Scherzo with warmly moulded strings in the lyrical trio.

What was lacking in Salonen’s technocratic style was a more old-Europe, spiritual engagement with the music. One will rarely hear the somber Adagio more beautifully played yet the cool expression seemed all on the surface lacking an essential glow and eloquence. So too the finale, rousing yet skirting bombast, was a bit straight-faced and literal for one of Bruckner’s quirkiest closers.

Still, the orchestra provided massively committed playing for their Finnish guest, with glorious contributions from the four dark-toned Wagner tubas and sensational playing from the strings throughout.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Salonen and CSO show close rapport in worlds old and new”

  1. Posted Mar 05, 2011 at 12:04 am by Brad

    It’s hard for any performance to truly glow in the miserably drab acoustics of Orchestra Hall. Bruckner’s phrases need the chance to breathe, and the organ quality of the chords requires a decent resonance to have the sense of awe that he must have envisioned. The CSO itself certainly delivers those things and did so brilliantly in this wonderful Bruckner 7 offering, but the hall fights their stellar efforts. It’s arguably the most ideal Bruckner orchestra playing in the least ideal setting.

    I hope Maestro Muti at some point demands that something is done to improve the hall’s acoustics. The person sitting next to me last night made the comment, “I can never seem to find a seat where the sound is right.” I’ve never been able to either, and I doubt such a thing exists there.

  2. Posted Mar 05, 2011 at 11:56 am by Mark

    I sat in the lower left balcony on Thursday night, and I thought that the accoustics were pretty good from there given that it is Orchestra Hall. However, the seats themselves were expensive and very uncomfortable. There is not much that can be done to improve the accoustics at Orchestra Hall. The sound rises above the stage and does not reverbarate throughout the hall. I think that is one of the big differences between it and Carnegie Hall, which is rightfully admired for its accoustics. Carnegie is also an exception to the general rule that the best concert halls are the smaller ones. In the United States, the best concert halls for orchestras are probably Symphony Hall in Boston and Severance Hall in Cleveland, which is absolutely stunning since its renovation. Still the accoustics at Orchestra Hall have improved since its last renovation, and they are not so dry as they used to be.

    One thing that might help in Chicago is to reposition the brass members so that the trumpets and the trombones are on different sides of the stage, and put the percussion instruments between them. At the decible levels they play at, they don’t particularly blend well as it is. This was most evident in the Wagner overture Thursday night. While not as bad as the last time I heard it performed in Chicago conducted by Barenboim, this piece can be a gem when played with more balance and finese.

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