By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES — The surest way for a composer to get performances of a new work, it would seem, is to write a concerto for a star soloist to plug — and having a major international career as a conductor should give one special access to such figures. So, over the course of one long February weekend at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Esa-Pekka Salonen and his former band, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, managed to corral the three star soloists for whom his three mature concertos were written — albeit one at a time, on different days.
In a spurt of creative scheduling, superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma dropped in for one evening only (Feb. 8) to perform and record Salonen’s recent Cello Concerto. Pianist Yefim Bronfman followed on Feb. 9 and 10 with the Piano Concerto, and violinist Leila Josefowicz concluded the concerto mini-festival Feb. 11 with the Violin Concerto (the latter two recorded their Salonen pieces for Deutsche Grammophon years ago). The determined Salonen fan thus had to buy tickets for three of the four concerts in order to experience the whole cycle, along with hearing the companion pieces, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Heinrich Biber’s Battalia, three times. (I’m sure some did, though I limited myself to just two hearings of the Beethoven and Biber.)
This unusual concentration of multiple Salonen works within a short period of time gave us a chance to assess what he has been up to over the last decade; indeed, these concertos comprise the bulk of his compositional output over that span. All are of roughly similar length, from 28 minutes for the Violin Concerto to 33 minutes for the Piano Concerto and about 35 minutes for the Cello Concerto. They mostly continue the pattern Salonen established with his LA Variations in trying to juggle his rigorous left-brain modernist training with emotional right-brain musical responses that have been increasingly geared toward seducing an audience. Yet each concerto has its own personality and sound world.
With world-class symphony orchestras at his disposal, Salonen continues to exploit their nearly infinite variety of colors to the hilt. He also enjoys exploiting his soloists. “I also happen to like the concept of a virtuoso operating at the very limits of what is physically (and sometimes mentally) possible,” he writes in his program note for the Cello Concerto. “In Nietzsche’s words, `You have made danger your vocation, there is nothing contemptible in that.’” To which Salonen adds, dryly, “No program note feels complete without a quotation from Thus Spake Zarathustra.”
The Piano Concerto (2007) certainly seems geared to Bronfman’s fire-eating strengths; he used to kvetch with good-natured humor about its difficulties, but he always nailed the piece in live performance. While Salonen imagines in his program note that he is evoking a French Baroque dance in the opening minutes, to me it conjures the dotted-note string gestures and knocking percussion punctuations of John Adams, a major liberating mid-life influence on Salonen. More than in the other concertos, the orchestra is as busy as the pianist — too busy, actually, laying it on in a thick, crowded jungle of sound with not much space in which to breathe. Bronfman now performs the concerto with more grace and less muscular grandstanding; at times, on Feb. 9, he seemed to disappear within the orchestration.
In the Violin Concerto (2008-09), Salonen writes for the orchestra with more economy, leaving space and oxygen for the instruments to gleam and twitter and produce the dazzling washes of color that have become the most alluring parts of his tool kit. The soloist is thrown into the deep end from the outset, for the piece opens with several bars of supercharged solo perpetual motion. The third movement is a particularly furious piece of business with a rare (for Salonen) allusion to big band jazz. Four percussionists are kept busy; the one on the trap drum kit is instructed in the score to “Go crazy” in the final five bars as the violinist slides all over the place.
But the overriding impression of the Violin Concerto is one of reflection, of the most pronounced lyrical feeling in all of Salonen’s music to date. The lengthy last movement — which has some kinship to the last movement of the Berg Violin Concerto — is titled “Adieu,” and much of the music has a wistful quality, ending like the Berg on a delicious chord that seems to come out of the blue. Salonen denies that this is “a specific farewell to anything in particular,” but the concerto was written when he was in his last season with the LA Phil, and the final chord is supposed to signal “a beginning of something new.” At the world premiere here in 2009, it sure felt to me like a farewell to his orchestra of 17 seasons.
Josefowicz remains a marvel; she played this arduous solo part from memory at the world premiere and still does. Her feeling for it has grown even deeper, from the whispering harmonics of the slow movement and touching peroration near the end of the finale to the heightened ferocity that she brought to the mad scherzo.
For the opening of his Cello Concerto (2015-17) — first heard in Chicago last March and given its West Coast premiere Feb. 8 — Salonen hit upon the idea of clouds, which translated into a sonic dream state with orchestral glitter on top from which Ma eventually emerged with a lyrical lead line. At another point in the first movement, the orchestral writing high in the treble seemed to simulate weightlessness. Another heavy cloud of complex sound descended upon the second movement, succeeded by some exceptionally delicate writing where Ma was barely audible.
By the third movement, a conguero on bongos and congas entered the picture, adding rhythmic patterns but not a groove, per se; that came later when the cello was set against clavés and maracas. The rest of the way marked Ma’s chance at last to cut loose against a flamboyant driving orchestra that seemed to inhale and exhale as one. Finally came a cadenza of Bach-like arpeggios and an ending in which Ma reached high up to the top of the cello’s range, then faded in a haze of electronic echo delay. A sound designer (Ella Wahlström) was listed in the program, but her electronic contributions were extremely subtle.
To sum up things up, the Cello Concerto is the edgiest and most mysterious of Salonen’s three concertos, and the Piano Concerto almost drowns in overloaded textures. The Violin Concerto has a much greater emotional impact than the others and may be his best piece of all so far.
If there is one trait that stood out in the rest of the program, it is Salonen’s highly developed sense of humor. That must be why he went against type and programmed Heinrich Biber’s hilarious Battalia from 1673, during which a handful of string players from the Philharmonic — standing à la period performance practice — stamped their feet loudly on the resonant Disney Hall stage in the first section and gleefully sounded the deliberate discords of the second section.
Beethoven’s Seventh closed each evening in performances that drove hard and fast with in-your-face force — Beethoven as roughneck. Salonen goosed the humorous elements in the piece with his use of silence, letting the transition from the introduction to the main part of the first movement linger and inserting a ridiculously long pause between the opening fanfares of the finale before proceeding with relentless energy. On Feb. 8, there was plenty of fire, yet the rhythms didn’t quite swing. But on Feb. 11, the swing was there, and that performance came off best.
Whenever Salonen comes back to town, the LA Phil reverts to the lean, precise, brilliant quality of playing that he encouraged when he was music director. And during the Seventh, I couldn’t help but admire the economy in which Beethoven applies his forces and how much more colorful Salonen’s works are when he does the same.
Incidentally, the Composer Salonen “festival” is not over yet. He will be staying on to lead his ode to Disney Hall, Wing on Wing, Feb. 16-18, and the work will be featured on two Toyota Symphonies for Youth concerts Feb. 24 and March 10. His successor, Gustavo Dudamel, will lead the world premiere of a still-untitled Salonen work April 13-15.
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.