Salonen Conducts Modernist Thriller With Chicago SO

Esa-Pekka Salonen led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program that included his ‘Foreign Bodies’ along with
works of Lutoslawski, Shostakovich, and Beethoven. (Concert photos by Dan Rest)
By Kyle MacMillan

CHICAGO — Anyone wondering why so many critics and other musical observers were pulling for Esa-Pekka Salonen as the next music director of the New York Philharmonic only needed to have attended his latest set of concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to understand. This was extraordinary music-making by any definition.

Salonen led Beethoven's 'King Stephen' Overture, not heard in Orchestra Hall since 1989.
Salonen’s program was off-beat, adventuresome, challenging.

For starters, there was the predominantly 20th– and 21st-century program, which was off-beat, adventuresome, and challenging. When the best-known piece in a line-up is Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 107, not exactly mainstream fare, you know something different is afoot. Even the selection by Beethoven that opened the evening was a refreshingly unusual choice: his Overture to King Stephen, Op. 117, hadn’t been heard in Orchestra Hall since 1989. None of that would have mattered, of course, if this were just some exercise in musical esotericism. But it was anything but.

No, this was a rich, captivating program (heard Feb. 26) filled with no shortage of “wow” moments. With their unorthodox instrumental combinations and performance techniques, the two most recent works — Witold Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 3 and Salonen’s Foreign Bodies — plunged listeners into exciting, uncharted soundscapes. But none of that would have been possible without a fully committed, top-flight orchestra and a conductor who provided incisive, involving leadership.

Before plunging into more contemporary fare, Salonen started with the composer who in many ways represents the bedrock of the symphonic repertoire. Though perhaps not quite on the same level as his more famous efforts in this form, the overture Beethoven wrote for the drama titled King Stephen is nonetheless an appealing work with the witty recurrence of a light, jaunty theme that makes its first contrasting appearance after a brief, imposing introduction. Salonen is an obvious fan of this compact piece, which showed in the brio and dash he and the orchestra brought to it.

Lutoslawksi: His Third Symphony was premiered by the CSO in 1983.
Lutoslawski: The CSO premiered his Third Symphony in 1983.

Then came the evening’s centerpiece, Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 3, one of the Polish composer’s best-known if still under-appreciated works. The presentation of this work was a ringing high point of the orchestra’s season-long celebration of its 125th anniversary, during which it is revisiting works that were given their world or American premieres by the Chicago Symphony. This piece had a long, drawn-out incubation process that began in 1972, when the ensemble approached the composer about writing a work for it. He mentioned the project during a return visit to the city two years later, but then the commission was all but forgotten. Finally, Lutosławski wrote to orchestra officials in July 1982 saying that the sketch of the symphony was complete, and a year later he presented the full score to then-music director Georg Solti, who led the world premiere in September 1983.

In an introduction to the piece from the podium, Salonen, a protégé and friend of the late composer (who died in 1994), said the premiere was an immediate success, one that reverberated across the international musical scene. It’s not hard to understand why: it’s because of the sweeping scope and ambition of this 30-minute work and Lutosławski’s clear commitment to preserving, evolving, and enriching the symphonic form. Little is conventional about this symphony, which consists of two movements played without pause and incorporates a large, augmented orchestration, including a highly unusual four-hand piano part.

Listeners are immediately cast into a bewildering, often dissonant yet captivating sonic world, what Salonen called a “labyrinth,” with alien slides in the violins, clashing modulations in the clarinets, explosive punctuations of percussion, rat-a-tat clangs of the chimes, and an anguished tuba solo. But nothing seems to go anywhere and nothing is resolved. Everything hangs in the air, feeling unsettlingly elusive and incomplete. It is only at the end that the musical lines grow a bit longer, and there is finally a sense of resolution, however shaky. More than three decades after the work’s creation, it is surprising how new and daring the music still sounds.

Salonen's 2013 release celebrated the 100th anniversary of Lutoslawski's birth.
Salonen’s 2013 Sony release has all four Lutoslawski symphonies.

Salonen and the orchestra delivered a gripping performance. No conductor is more familiar with Lutosławski’s symphonies than Salonen, who marked the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth by recording all four of them with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for a box set that was released in 2013. His command was evident throughout with the Chicago Symphony. He brought sharp-edged immediacy and a keen sense of structure to his interpretation, flawlessly holding together the unwieldy work, with its unconventional improvisational or ad lib sections. The musicians were with him note for note, offering some of their most inspired playing of the season.

Serving as an ideal counterpart to the Symphony No. 3 was Salonen’s Foreign Bodies, a work that emerged from a year-long sabbatical the conductor took in 2000 to focus on composing. The piece owes an obvious debt to Lutosławski, drawing on an even larger, more diverse instrumentation, including alto and bass flute, electric bass, and a vast assortment of percussion, and evoking the composer’s own dazzlingly complex and exotic sonic realm. The three movements, titled “Body Language,” “Language,” and “Dance,” throb with a sense of energy and movement, as the score builds to a charging, kinetic finale. Salonen obviously knows the work inside out, and he oversaw a full-bore, exhilarating realization.

Yo-Yo Ma was the soloist in Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1.
Yo-Yo Ma was the soloist in Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1.

After the heady experience of those first three works, which would have made for a satisfying concert on their own, the obvious question was: How do you — if not top — at least match that? The answer, of course, was cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who was featured in Shostakovich’s stark, sometimes claustrophobic Cello Concerto No. 1. There are many reasons why Ma (the orchestra’s creative consultant) is the world’s most popular classical instrumentalist, but it starts with his transcendent playing, which was in evidence from the first moment he put bow to string. He possesses flawless technique and a sound that is usually clean, buoyant, and embracing, but that appropriately took on a darker, grittier cast here. Most important, Ma, like any great musician, matches all that skill with a profound emotional investment that only grew in intensity as the work progressed.

It began with his driving, almost manic take on the first movement, continued with the lonely pathos he brought to the slower second movement, and culminated with Shostakovich’s unorthodox third movement, an extended cadenza originally written for the work’s dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich, who premiered it in 1959. Ma bore into this section, vividly conveying its painful collision of emotions with playing that was alternately strident, frenetic, and mournful. Salonen and the orchestra provided trenchant, fervent support throughout, but the spotlight was squarely on Ma and the mastery that has made him who he is.

Other reasons for Ma’s popularity are his infectious love for music-making, which was clear from the big grin on his face as he acknowledged the sold-out audience’s warm, sustained applause, as well as the respect he always shows to his fellow musicians. He made a point of embracing Salonen, shaking hands with the symphony’s entire front semi-circle of musicians, and acknowledging a few of the orchestral players who had significant solos in the work. Notable among them was acting principal French horn Daniel Gingrich, who affectingly complemented Ma in key moments throughout the performance, especially in his brooding, questioning solos at the beginning of the second movement.

Kyle MacMillan recently marked his 25th anniversary as a music critic and reporter. After serving 11 years as fine arts critic for the Denver Post, he is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and writes for such national publications as Opera News and The Wall Street Journal.