Salonen returns to CSO in top style with a rock & roll concerto

Fri May 27, 2022 at 2:36 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Ravel, Stravinsky and Bryce Dessner Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

One walked out of Orchestra Hall Thursday night with the kind of content, satiated feeling one has after a magnificent dinner—fine variety of cuisine, artful blending of ingredients, and everything prepared and presented on the highest level.

Such is invariably the case when Esa-Pekka Salonen comes to town. In the first program of his two-week spring residency, the Finnish conductor led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in an evening of first-rate performances, including the local premiere of a compelling new concerto. And there wasn’t an overplayed warhorse in sight.

This is a crucial time for Salonen’s return. With the CSO in the hunt for a new music director, I labeled him a dark horse candidate on a short list of potential Muti successors in February—primarily because his contract with the San Francisco Symphony runs through 2025. But with CSO president Jeff Alexander saying that there would likely be an interim period between music directors after Riccardo Muti’s tenure concludes next summer, Salonen now becomes a more plausible possibility.

Certainly Thursday night’s concert—his first with the CSO since 2018—showed the kind of inspirational results Salonen routinely brings in widely differentiated repertoire. (A slated 2019 program featuring Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle fell victim to that year’s musician strike.)

Salonen’s taste in contemporary music is as venturesome and quirky as his own compositions. That was clear in the evening’s centerpiece, Bryce Dessner’s Violin Concerto, performed by soloist Pekka Kuusisto in the work’s Chicago premiere. 

Best known as guitarist, songwriter, and founding member (with twin brother Aaron) of the rock band, the National, Dessner has branched out into different genres over the past decade, from film scores (Netflix’s The Two Popes) to classical, including vocal, chamber and orchestral works.

After penning Ornament and Crime, a solo violin work, for Kuusisto, Dessner wrote his Violin Concerto for the Finnish musician during the pandemic lockdown, completing it in 2021. The work was written for and dedicated to Kuusisto, who Dessner calls “an “ideal collaborator” who “brings creative whimsy to everything he touches.”

Dessner’s concerto is cast in traditional concerto form with three movements that outwardly adhere to fast-slow-fast structure. The composer’s rock background is manifest from the drop—Salonen’s downbeat launched a massive metallic chord from the orchestra, and Kuusisto was off to the races in a quick moto perpetuo with dizzying violin fireworks almost without pause or letup. The orchestra’s string sections, violins in particular, often shadow the soloist’s lines, while the music is punctuated by power-chord accents from the orchestra. 

The tempo slows down for a passage for the soloist set against a snare drum, and a lighter, almost folkish cadenza leads attacca into the second movement. An uneasy stillness dominates here, Dessner upending the genre’s usual soloist focus by giving each orchestra player their own solo line. The rapid-fire brilliance is even more to the fore in the finale as the violin soloist seems to channel leading ax virtuosos of the past like Robin Trower and Michael Schenker. As the tempo accelerates and the solo pyrotechnics are ratcheted higher and higher, the orchestral writing gets louder and more rambunctious as well, closing in a blazing coda.

Esa-Pekka Salonen congratulates violinist Pekka Kuusisto following his performance of Bryce Dessner’s Violin Concerto Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

For all its dervish bravura, the first movement of Dessner’s concerto is fixed on an unvaried, relentless solo virtuosity that goes on too long, especially set against the brief middle section and shorter finale. Also, while Dessner’s scoring for orchestral forces is surprisingly deft, the boisterous closing movement too often buries the soloist in the dust. Even with a master balancer like Salonen on the podium, Kuusisto was more seen than heard in the blowout final bars.

That said, while it may not be deep, Bryce Dessner’s Violin Concerto is an impressive achievement, skillfully blending a blistering rock solo virtuosity with traditional classical form in an individual and exciting way.

Dessner’s concerto is also likely one of the most technically demanding concertos ever written for the violin. (One has to think that Kuusisto, the only begetter of this score, had something to do with the array of ludicrous technical challenges, just as soloists have been collaborators with composers historically.) 

Regardless, Kuusisto delivered one of the most jaw-dropping exhibitions of solo virtuosity seen on Chicago stages in a long time, soaring through the most impossible hurdles with complete technical security and huge panache. Salonen led a tight and brilliant accompaniment that was as colorful as his personality-plus soloist.

Kuusisto’s performance earned him warm applause by the audience as well as CSO musicians. Recalled for solo bows Kuusisto simply said, “I would like to play some quiet music for you.” No obvious Bach encore for this nonconformist; instead, Kuusisto displayed a scaled-down bravura with his arrangement of fellow Finn and jazz pianist Iro Haarla’s Barcarole, exploring a range of infinitesimally graded dynamics that barely rose above a whisper.

The first half of the evening was devoted to Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye (Mother Goose). Written in 1910 as a piano duet for children, Ravel revised the suite and arranged it for orchestra the following year.

Ma mère l’Oye is one of Ravel’s most characteristic works (along with the ballet Daphnis et Chloe, which Salonen and the CSO will perform next week). While the suite is drawn from children’s fairy tales, Ravel’s music is rendered with an adult’s unsentimental sophistication, painting the tales with a subtle palette of elegant half-tones suffused with a wistful melancholy that feels like a retrospective look back at the lost innocence of childhood.

Conducting sans baton with graceful hand gestures, Salonen led a luminous performance that fully conveyed the gentle contrasts and iridescent hues of this score. Each episode emerged in a seamless relaxed flow—lightly buoyant charm in the “Dance of the Spinning Wheel,” the delicacy of the flute solo in Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane, the light humor of the lowing contrabassoon painting the Beast in his conversation with Beauty and the quaint chinoiserie of the “Empress of the Pagodas.” 

The “Enchanted Garden” finale presents one of Ravel’s most indelible melodies, building from the hushed tenderness of the theme’s first appearance in the violins to a glowing, resplendent coda. With organic, idiomatic direction by Salonen and stellar contributions from the CSO front desks, this richly atmospheric performance deserved greater applause than it received Thursday night.

The program concluded with Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. The wartime inspiration of this work (1942-45) tends to overshadow the music itself, especially with the composer’s copious commentary on the specific images reflected in the work: goose-stepping Nazi soldiers, Chinese peasants digging in the earth, etc.

Enlightening as that knowledge is, listening to Stravinsky’s symphony with a less directly programmatic focus can make one appreciate this stark, brilliantly worked out score even more. 

Salonen jumped on the podium whirled around and gave the downbeat in nearly a single motion, launching a boldly projected performance, as sharp-edged and aggressive as the Ravel had been subtle and allusive.

Under Salonen’s direction, this music sounded fresh and jarringly modern, emerging as tough and astringent as it must have seemed to the audience at the 1946 premiere under Stravinsky. Yet the conductor also pointed up the contrasts in the clarinet, harp and piano middle of the opening movement or the ascending flute solo—nicely rendered by Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson—that provides a respite from the sardonic main theme of the Andante.

Salonen took the final movement at a more measured tempo than many—including the composer—which added menace to the malign march theme. All of the complex myriad elements emerged with sharp, bracing clarity from the CSO musicians in top form, with the tuba crescendo and dizzying canon for bassoons adding to the sense of strangeness and dislocation. The performance was rounded off with a resounding D-flat chord, making manifest Stravinsky’s extra bit of triumph at the Allies’ victory.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

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