Wisdom of Salonen evident in Civic Orchestra’s Sibelius and Scriabin

Wed Mar 02, 2011 at 11:58 am

By Dennis Polkow

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the Civic Orchestra Monday night in music of Sibelius and Scriabin. Photo: Clive Barda.

One of the advantages of the Civic Orchestra being the training ensemble of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is the opportunity for visiting CSO guest conductors to also work directly with the Civic. Perhaps the most inspired of such recent relationships has been the orchestra’s contact with Finnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Some guest conductors working with the Civic tend to concentrate on repertoire that they are already doing with the CSO — sometimes only a movement or two — but not Esa-Pekka Salonen: last time around (January 2009) he prepared and conducted the Civic in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in what was likely the most challenging program that the orchestra has done in recent memory.

As wonderful of an experience as that was both for the musicians and audience, Salonen was understandably only able to get across a detailed blueprint for his conception of that piece before it had to hit the ground running. On Monday night, Salonen’s program was less ambitious and the result was more polished and successful.

After last week’s revelatory Salonen-led CSO performances of the Sibelius Second Symphony, it was a treat to have a chance to hear more Sibelius from Salonen, this time opening and closing sections of the Four Legends from the Kalevala, Op. 22.

Salonen could have easily just offered the most popular of these pieces, The Swan of Tuonela, but by performing the expansive and less performed opening of the work, Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari followed by the suite’s finale Lemminkäinen’s Return, Salonen in effect made not only a structurally-satisfying mini-suite of some of Sibelius’ most colorful music, but a concise narrative of the Finnish national epic.

Yes, the horn section entrance of Maidens was scattered. But the evocative sound world created by the long string and woodwind lines—sonically painting the mysterious island world where the maidens reside and to whom Lemminkäinen erotically succumbs—was clearly brought out by the palpable tension across the sections and punctuated by refreshingly scaled-back brass that never overpowered the mood.

Audience applause almost ruined the transition, but Salonen quickly reined it in with one well-timed hand gesture that allowed the Return finale to proceed without interruption. This is more familiar music, of course, but what really stood out was not only the linear transparency and rhythmic clarity but how the glorious ending managed to bubble forth without spilling over into excess, a real danger with music often overplayed and over-sentimentalized.

It would be hard to imagine a more contrasting yet appropriate companion piece to follow these works than Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy. A contemporary of Sibelius who had a much shorter career, Scriabin was as experimental and forward-looking with his music as Sibelius was conservative and nostalgic with his.

The hyper-chromaticism of Ecstasy is sometimes performed as post-Wagnerian, sometimes pre-Schoenberg, but with Salonen, we are reminded how much this music also owes to the sound worlds of Debussy and Richard Strauss as well. This was a performance of remarkable nuance and structural clarity that nonetheless remained always expressive and became ecstatic but not overbearing.

Posted in Performances

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