Salonen Concerto Loops Cellist Into Cosmic Virtuosity

Yo-Yo Ma and composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen share a bow after the world premiere of Salonen’s Cello Concerto.
(Concert photos by Anne Ryan, courtesy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.)
By Nancy Malitz

CHICAGO — Esa-Pekka Salonen’s new Cello Concerto begins like a creation myth, conjuring the impression of a cosmic cloud with the full orchestra at an unsettling murmur. Sounds ripple and spark in the vast, vague expanse as if in a time before time. Then an idea forms – a cello’s sigh – and other instruments, drawn in loosely, as if by gravity, begin to gather around the cello’s line in shifting variants. The Finnish composer says he thinks of the music as a comet and its flowing tail.

Salonen, with Ma and the Chicago Symphony, conjure the image of a comet with its tail.

The opening effect was flat-out thrilling in the concerto’s world premiere March 9 at Orchestra Hall, with the conductor on the podium, cellist Yo-Yo Ma as the music’s persuasive comet, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra standing in for the cosmos via Salonen’s cool presence.

The sprawling, hypnotic 30-minute opus pushes the boundaries of endurance and virtuosity for the cellist, with multiple solo episodes and some seriously high notes – Guinness record contenders – above the top piano keys. The work is also a four-way commission, putting Ma at the onset of a marathon of these first performances. He will introduce the new piece next under Alan Gilbert with the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall March 15-18. After that, Ma and the New York forces will travel with the concerto to its other commissioners – London’s Barbican Centre (April 2) and Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie (April 3) – midway through the Philharmonic’s extended spring tour on the continent.

Successful since age 25 as conductor, Salonen now makes more time for composing.

Salonen, 58, has been conducting major ensembles since he was 25. His own music reflects the inside knowledge in orchestration of composer-conductors like Richard Strauss and Mahler, the expansive vistas preferred by Wagner and Sibelius, and the shimmering palettes of Debussy and Messiaen, while sounding wholly like himself. As for Salonen’s approach to the solo part, the composer of Don Quixote in particular would find the flights of fantasy in this new concerto for cello, with hearty asides for bongos, congas, and alto flute, to be worthy company.

Salonen’s ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ project, Chicago 2014. (Todd Rosenberg)

In middle age, after wrestling with the demands of his music directorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and extensive guest conducting, Salonen decided that composing needed to be his primary focus, while limiting himself to specialized conducting projects with manageable beginning and end dates. Thus Chicago saw his semi-staging of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in 2015 (as did London and Los Angeles) with synchronized projections and a narrator, and Metropolitan Opera audiences saw him at the helm of the Patrice Chéreau production of Richard Strauss’ Elektra in 2016. Salonen is also the New York Philharmonic’s composer in residence, and he is still principal conductor of the London Philharmonia, besides being a regular presence in Los Angeles and Chicago.

Salonen’s concentration on composing allows him to adopt the discipline of attempting a major work on a nearly annual basis. In 2014, the Chicago Symphony performed his Nyx, a symphonic poem named after the mythical goddess of darkness at the dawn of creation. It is a beauty that bears no small resemblance to the opening fabric of the cello concerto, with its many-voiced, supple counterpoint deployed in chamber-like delicacy toward an eerie sense of quiet majesty.

Salonen has undertaken other concertos, writing in his program notes that he likes to challenge his virtuoso friends to operate “at the very limits” while slyly paraphrasing Nietzsche’s praise for making danger one’s vocation. His Piano Concerto was introduced in 2007 by Yefim Bronfman, who continues to perform it. (Here Bronfman is at the BBC Proms.) Leila Josefowicz championed his Violin Concerto of 2009. (Here is an excerpt.) Both were given to Chicago audiences by their respective advocates soon after premieres elsewhere.

Salonen’s concerto for Yo-Yo Ma is a fierce, cadenza-laden half hour.

Now comes the arresting work for Ma. It is an often brutally fierce, cadenza-laden half hour concerto that, by way of contrast, brinks the threshold of silence in a hushed middle movement cameo. In this beautiful interlude, Ma, through digital looping, essentially performed in harmony with himself, an effect he clearly enjoyed on opening night, lifting both hands off the cello while his instrument seemed to redouble its own siren calls. Mentioning Ma specifically, Salonen wrote that he admired the true virtuoso’s ability in the quietest moments “to fill near-stasis with life,” and confessed he was humbled by it. Here was evidence. A charming duet between Ma and alto flute ensued.

Salonen’s finale itself is a fun feast — make that a groaning board — of bongos, frenzy, and fireworks. It begins slowly as the cello snaps out of its ruminations and surrenders to the spirit of the dance, with a midpoint pause for some ecstatic passages of cosmic heavy breathing. (These are gale-force orchestral tuttis in which the composer seems to doff his cap to Strauss’ wind machines and Messiaen’s interstellar calls.) Throughout the final push, the cello is constantly busy in rapid passagework, percussive attacks, dizzying multiple stops, arpeggios, and scalar passages that eventually climb the highest high.

Digital looping, which involves recording Yo-Yo Ma's music for instant playback, plays an important role.
Ma’s cello is rigged for digital looping, which mingles live sound with playback.

I had a hard time keeping up with the cello’s pyrotechnics, but time has a way of making sense of things that first race by. Ma was at the top of his game, sounding the best I have heard him in recent years, all in for the effort even when he was vying with Cynthia Yeh’s terrific drumming in some of the trickiest syncopated stuff.

After a first hearing, it is the staggering beauty of the orchestral cosmos in the first movement, as the cello reveals its mystic allure, to which my memory keeps returning. But there was much else to admire in this premiere, especially the poise with which the orchestra handled its many-threaded intricacies, the singular delicacy of the slow movement, and the finale’s dazzling rush.

The concerto wrapped up a two-week residency for Salonen. In both weeks, he paired works by John Adams and Stravinsky, which made for an electric early March. He programmed Adams’ Scheherazade.2 with Le sacre du printemps in the first week. Then, with the Cello Concerto, he offered rambunctious performances of Petrouchka and Adams’ Slonimsky’s Earbox.

Salonen’s programming preferences have nicely balanced the leanings of Chicago’s music director Riccardo Muti, whose tastes run to the Austro-Hungarian core, Italian repertoire generally, and the lions of his own youth (Penderecki, Nono, Berio, Boulez) — although the 75-year-old maestro routinely learns new works in support of the orchestra’s two composers in residence. Next up, on March 16, is the world premiere of many words of love by one of them, Samuel Adams.

Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today, and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for a variety of national publications.