Salonen, CSO thrilling and majestic in Sibelius rarity

Fri Apr 04, 2014 at 1:15 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the CSO Thursday night in music of Bartok and Sibelius. Photo: Nicho-Soedling
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the CSO Thursday night in music of Bartok and Sibelius. Photo: Nicho Soedling

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s annual visits to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra invariably provide highlights of the season. So, it was dismaying to see the scores of empty seats Thursday night at Orchestra Hall. Have local audiences become so reactionary that they now stay away from any concerts that aren’t centered on Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky or Beethoven warhorses—even with such a distinguished podium guest as Salonen?

Their loss, for this first program of the Finnish conductor-composer’s two-week residency provided one of the CSO’s finest concerts of the year, with the highlight being Sibelius’s Four Legends from the Kalevala.

The young Sibelius had planned an opera called The Building of the Boat inspired by the Kalevala, Finland’s epic national poem. A trip to Bayreuth soon changed his mind about writing operas, and he salvaged “The Swan of Tuonela” from the opera sketches, later writing three more tone poems depicting aspects of the hero Lemminkainen’s adventures, and publishing the set as the Four Legends.

This music (1892-96) predates Sibelius’s numbered symphonies and is cast in a ripely Romantic idiom, composed for vast forces. Yet all of the Finnish composer’s musical handprints are there–the dark lyric themes and heroic striding allegros, set against scurrying string writing, jagged brass motifs and skirling winds that seem to reflect the bleak austere beauty of the Northern landscape.

In this repertory Salonen has no peer, and Thursday night’s thrilling, atmospheric performance made the strongest possible case for this largely unknown music (“The Swan of Tuonela,” for all its familiarity, hasn’t been played downtown by the CSO in nearly a decade.) On a practical level, the Legends make a de facto four-movement 46-minute symphony, and one can’t imagine why this magnificent music isn’t performed as a unified set more often.

The first section, “Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari,” is the most expansive and Salonen showed a sure sense of the architecture, moving from the evocative opening for horns through the ebbs and valleys with a natural flow, like the unfolding of a bardic narrative. The peculiar pastoral tension with firm pedal points that undergirds much of Sibelius’ music was consistently manifest, Salonen building the music to a resplendent climax.

The conductor brought out the nature elements of “Lemminkäinen in Tuonela” alertly, underlining the unearthly strangeness of the opening passage for cellos and basses, and pointing the big outbursts as surely as the glowing luxuriance of the string writing.

One could go a lifetime and not encounter as perfectly realized a performance of “The Swan of Tuonela” as that heard Thursday night. Salonen’s meticulous balancing made one wonder anew at Sibelius’s scoring mastery. Scott Hostetler’s gorgeous, elegiac English horn solo was stunning, nicely backed by John Sharp’s warm cello line, Salonen moulding phrases expressively with his hands sans baton.

The final Legend, “Lemminkäinen’s Return” is the least inspired of the set, flirting with bombast at times. Yet such was the level of commitment and intensity that Salonen and the CSO brought to the music that any caviling was silenced, the restless, roiling strings and triumphant brass fanfares making for a whipcrack coda.

The Chicago Symphony’s lean, tensile strings pungent brass and expressive winds are eminently well suited to this repertoire, and Salonen’s Sibelius performances have been consistent high points of recent seasons. How about a CSO Sibelius Festival in a future season with Salonen leading performances of all the symphonies and selected shorter works? I’d pay to hear that.

The Suite from Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin provided fine contrast, musically and thematically. One could hardly get further away from heroic Finnish myths than Bartok’s downbeat ballet where three thugs employ a prostitute to entice clients so the hoods can rob them. The tale proved so scandalous that the ballet was never performed, though the music eventually found its rightful place in the concert hall after the composer’s death.

The Miraculous Mandarin remain one of Bartok’s finest orchestral works, the grim tale painted with audacious scoring and jarring rhythmic impact.

Salonen led a powerful reading of the ballet’s suite, the rarely heard organ part adding a floor-shaking element. The CSO is one of the world’s most flexible ensembles and Salonen drew an aptly raw and strident quality from the orchestra, a fitting sonic palette for the lurid scenario. The conductor brought out the moments of luminous expressionist lyricism as well as the violence of the attack sequences with the heavy-metal final bars given unbridled fervor and sonic punch. The CSO’s playing was laudable in all departments, particularly John Bruce Yeh’s sinuous clarinet solos, and the aptly sleazy trombone slides from Jay Friedman and colleagues.

Twice programmed in 2010 and 2011, Anna Clyne’s <<rewind<< fell victim to Riccardo Muti’s medical crises early in his tenure as music director. The third time proved the charm and the work by the CSO’s composer-in-residence finally had its belated Chicago premiere Thursday under Salonen to open the concert.

As the title suggests, the work was inspired by an an image of analog videotape quickly scrolling backwards with skips, freeze-ups and audio warfing along the way. The dynamic propulsive work for large orchestra, including four percussionists, is crafted with Clyne’s usual quirky panache, the driving rock theme punctuated by loud metallic chords.

Clyne is a greatly gifted composer and one could easily see <<rewind<< becoming a popular leadoff item for orchestral concerts, much like Christopher Rouse’s The Infernal Machine a generation ago. Clyne does tend to overuse her devices and the emphatic outbursts become repetitious and bludgeoning even in this brief seven-minute piece. Also the electronic sound of rewinding tape near the coda is a bit too cutesy and twee and the work would be stronger without it.

Still, <<rewind<< is an enjoyable romp, with street echoes of New York City where it was composed, as in the siren-like decrescendo in the horns. Salonen led the CSO in a rousing and virtuosic performance, which was greeted with an enthusiastic ovation by the audience.

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

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Salonen, CSO thrilling and majestic in Sibelius rarity”

  1. Posted Apr 09, 2014 at 4:19 pm by Peter-D-G

    We attended the Tuesday (4/8) performance and it was as fabulous as L.A.J. describes. Yes, the audience was sparse with a third of the seats empty – but nice to be able to spread out and also nice that there were a lot more young people in the hall than usual!

    I suppose many subscribers skipped the performance because the “lead act” was by a contemporary, even though Anna Clyne’s work isn’t that far removed from conventional 20th century classical music. Anyone who would stay away to avoid seven minutes of something new doesn’t deserve to enjoy the excitement of the rest of this program. The final applause was thunderous, and there was tentative, but wide spread applause at the end of each of the first three parts of the Sibelius – and why not.

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