Serious Nonsense, ‘Karawane’ Glories In Salonen’s Wit

Esa-Pekka Salonen continues to show his compositional skill with the orchestral work 'Karawane.' (Photo by Nicho Södling)
Esa-Pekka Salonen continues to show growing compositional skill with his orchestral work ‘Karawane.’
(Photo by Nicho Södling)
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES —  Not long ago, it became apparent that once Pierre Boulez left the scene, Esa-Pekka Salonen was likely to become the leading active composer-conductor of our time. With Boulez now on the sidelines due to physical frailties, this appears to have come to pass, and Salonen encouraged these expectations by leaving his post as Los Angeles Philharmonic music director in 2009 in order to devote more time to composing.

Lionel Bringuier has led Salonen's work in Europe.
Lionel Bringuier conducted the ‘Karawane’ world and U.S. premieres.

Yet six years have passed, and Salonen’s compositional output actually seems to have lessened. The only new pieces to emerge have been Nyx for orchestra, a brief Dona Nobis Pacem for a cappella choir, and just one big work, Karawane, for orchestra and chorus. Karawane received its U.S. premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall Nov. 20-22 under the baton of Lionel Bringuier, the 29-year-old Frenchman who was Salonen’s assistant conductor in the latter’s final two seasons in Los Angeles.

Undoubtedly, distractions continue to crop up in Salonen’s life — constant guest conducting invitations, his ongoing gig as principal conductor of London’s Philharmonia — and there is rampant speculation that he is on the short list of candidates to succeed Alan Gilbert at the New York Philharmonic. Given Salonen’s determination to concentrate on composing, it’s unlikely he would take the New York job, with all its responsibilities and headaches, and if he did, it might further stall what looks like the blooming of a significant musical voice.

Hugo Ball's poem 'Karawane' (Wiki Commons)
Dada poet Hugo Ball wrote ‘Karawane’ in 1916. (Wiki)

First heard in Zurich in Sept. 2014, Karawane is a setting of a 1916 poem of the same name by one of the leaders of the Dada movement, Hugo Ball. The “text” is just a bunch of nonsense syllables disguised as some kind of obscure foreign language; it’s typical of Salonen’s wickedly dry wit that he would be attracted to this sort of thing. What he does with it, though, is create a succession of luminous, and toward the close, wild soundscapes.

Salonen divides the 27-minute piece into two roughly equal parts, each opening with murmurs and whispers from the chorus. The first part soars, with the choral syllables often dissolving into vowels; the second part eventually stomps and builds to a frantic dance.

Given Salonen’s day job at the helm of major symphony orchestras, it isn’t surprising that his mastery of orchestration continues to grow, utilizing striking effects like the entire string section strumming over low men’s voices; a duo for solo cello and oboe over undulating clarinets, flutes, and vibraphone; or thick string chords pockmarked with colorful percussion. You can sense echoes, intentional or not, of the past infiltrating Salonen’s evolving language: “Sirènes” from Debussy’s Nocturnes in Part One; Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (the last piece that he conducted as LA Phil music director in 2009); and, to my ears at least, Villa-Lobos’s Choros No. 10 in Part Two.

Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, for which Salonen is currently composer-in-residence, take on Karawane next on Mar. 17-19, 2016. A Finnish performance of the work, available on YouTube from January 2015, is at right.

Karawane is Salonen’s most immediately attractive showpiece to date as he continues to veer further and further into the general concert audience’s sphere of pleasure. It could become quite popular if there are enough organizations out there with the virtuoso resources to handle it.

One significant thing about Salonen’s emergence as a major composer is that other conductors are increasingly taking up his pieces, some of whom have given the world premieres. It was Bringuier who led the world premiere of Karawane in Zurich and the German premiere in Bamberg, and he extracted an exciting, detailed performance from the LA Phil and the Los Angeles Master Chorale at Disney Hall Nov. 21 (Salonen was not present). Bringuier also led off the concert with some Debussy, a Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun that moved with assurance and power in the right spots and drifted without breaking the continuous line in others — a masterful performance.

Yuja Wang gave an elegant account of a Mozart concerto.
Yuja Wang gave a sensitive account of Mozart’s concerto, K. 271.

Ultimately, though, the main draw for this concert was the pianist and fashion plate Yuja Wang, who was impressive in both categories. Yet instead of her usual virtuoso blockbusters, she turned to subdued and restrained Mozart for the first time with the relatively underexposed Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat, K. 271.

Overall, Wang gave an imaginative performance, with question-and-answer-like dynamic contrasts in the first movement, and except for some brief thunderous left hand octaves at the start of the first movement cadenza, there was no hint of the steel-fingered purveyor of Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff. I’ve never heard her play so delicately as she did in the second movement, yet with every note firm and polished. For his part, Bringuier renewed the simpatico collaboration with Wang that recently produced a nifty set of the two Ravel concertos on Deutsche Grammophon (released in late October) with the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich. Wang added an elaborate transcription of one of the “Dances of the Swans” from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake as a solo encore.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.