Salonen, Ma and CSO team up for riveting night of rarities

Fri Mar 01, 2013 at 4:05 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Yo-Yo Ma and Esa-Pekka Salonen share a bow after Thursday night’s performance of Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto with the CSO. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Verdi and Wagner are the big birthday composers of 2013 with their operas, familiar and less so, being performed with even greater frequency than usual around the world this year.

In his second and final week of concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this season, Esa-Pekka Salonen paid tribute to a lesser-known anniversary figure, Witold Lutoslawski, of whose music he has long been a steadfast advocate. This is the centennial year of the Polish composer’s birth and, with Yo-Yo Ma as soloist in Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto, Thursday’s world-beating performance made a superb homage and a riveting centerpiece for a memorable evening of musical rarities.

Written for Mstislav Rostropovich in 1969-70, the concerto is cast in a single movement of 23 minutes. The work hails from the period that saw the start of Rostropovich’s political troubles for speaking out against the artistic repression of the Soviet regime. With similar unrest stirring in Poland and the Russian cellist closely involved with the work’s composition, it’s not too hard to hear some of that contemporary political backdrop in this highly charged music.

Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto is a product of his experimental middle period and, to some extent, is a work of its time, with punchy contrasts, astringent textures and jarring dissonances. The soloist enters with a hushed introduction, glumly repeating a note and musing on it in interior fashion. Malign strident muted brass cut him off as if in violent remonstration. Much of the work abounds in such edgy dialogues, with the soloist emerging as a plaintive solitary figure searching for some placid safe haven against a harsh, roiling symphonic backdrop.

In addition to his post as the CSO’s creative consultant, Yo-Yo Ma also serves as annual box office insurance, his appearances guaranteeing a largely sold-out house. So, it was a rare pleasure to hear Ma in a tough and aggressive 20th-century work rather than the usual populist repertoire, and, in fact, his account of the Lutoslawski concerto gave Chicago audiences the cellist’s finest local performance of recent years.

Where his highly expressive style and how-low-can-you-go pianissimos can sometimes cloy in Late Romantic repertoire, Ma here provided a salutary reminder of how his communicative artistry can illuminate and provide emotional resonance to thorny, less familiar music. Playing with elegant tone and dedication, the soloist made fully manifest the deep vein of humanity at the heart of Lutoslawski’s concerto, as with the tragic searching phrases of the cantilena section. The concerto concludes with an intense struggle, as the increasingly assertive soloist finds his voice to battle the relentless orchestral adversary; played with searing full-metal intensity by both Ma and the orchestra, the protagonist emerges battered but quietly victorious at the coda.

Salonen drew explosive, powerful playing from the orchestra that could likely be heard outside on Michigan Avenue, an equal partner to Ma’s wide range of expression and unbridled solo work. The enthusiastic ovation—characteristically and generously shared with Salonen and the orchestra by the star cellist—was well deserved.

It’s not an anniversary year for Sibelius, but any chance to hear the Finnish composer’s music led by his compatriot Salonen is a welcome one. The first half of the evening gave us two Sibelius works: Pohjola’s Daughter and the Symphony No. 7.

As with many composers, Sibelius’s music grew increasingly taut and concentrated over time, evolving from the big quasi-Russian romantic gesture into a sparer expression that sheared away all excess and redundancy.

Though he would live for another three decades, Sibelius’s Symphony No. 7 would be his final work in the genre, and, for many, his finest and most characteristic. In just one remarkable movement spanning 22 minutes, Sibelius seemed to convey the essence of his style in music of immanent power and austere majesty that is all the more eloquent for its restraint.

Salonen can be counted among our leading Sibelius interpreters and Thursday’s performance no doubt made many believers of a work few had likely heard live previously. The performance really showed the Seventh as Sibelius’s crowning achievement, Salonen masterfully drawing out the organ-like string sonority, dark, restless energy and ennobled expression, which here seemed to present a kind of Northern wooded landscape where nature and spirituality meet. The entire ensemble played gloriously for their guest conductor, not least the magnificent evocative trombones led by Jay Friedman.

The performance was preceded by another Sibelius rarity, Pohjola’s Daughter, not played by the CSO since 1965. In many ways, this was an even more revelatory reading. From Kenneth Olsen’s burnished opening cello solo, the performance of Sibelius’s tone poem had a strength and dramatic urgency that proved intensely compelling. In Salonen’s hands, the composer’s nature writing came across as fresh and bracing as a drink of water from a cold mountain spring.

As if the foregoing wasn’t enough music to chew on, Salonen ended the concert with that rarest of things a (relatively) unknown work by Tchaikovsky, Francesca da Rimini. Though infrequently aired today, the tone poem has enjoyed some celebrated advocates, including Leopold Stokowski who recorded it three times (his blistering 1958 New York version is worth seeking out).

Tchaikovsky’s setting of the Dante-inspired tale of adulterous lovers is similar in structure to the composer’s earlier, more celebrated Romeo and Juliet Overture, yet here the themes are not quite as indelible and it requires an extraordinary performance to make Francesca seem like a work on the same level.

Fortunately, that’s exactly what it got Thursday night courtesy of Salonen and the CSO. This was a volatile, spectacular ride from beginning to end. John Bruce Yeh lofted an elegant clarinet solo in the central love theme, but it was the cataclysmic fervor of the outer sections that made this a thrilling experience, Salonen and the orchestra delivering a hair-raising account of the violent maelstrom that traps the lovers in hell.

This is one of the CSO’s finest concerts of the season, and not a program to miss.

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

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Salonen, Ma and CSO team up for riveting night of rarities”

  1. Posted Mar 04, 2013 at 10:10 am by Odradek

    It’s good to see Salonen is still actively promoting Lutoslawski’s music. He’s been conducting it since the 1980s, and in fact just released a complete set of his symphonies.

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