Conductor Salonen Advances His Twin Side As Composer

After decades, a change of emphasis: Esa-Pekka Salonen now thinks of himself as a composer first, conductor second.
(Photo: Benjamin Suomela, FidelioArts)
By Rick Schultz

LOS ANGELES — When his 17-year tenure as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic ended in 2009, Esa-Pekka Salonen began working in earnest to reverse his identification as a conductor first, composer second. After decades on the podium, that has not been easy.

Since his L.A. Variations, a brilliantly orchestrated showpiece written for the Philharmonic in 1997, Salonen has been playing catch-up with fellow Finnish composers Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho. Indeed, in the revised edition of Paul Griffiths’ Modern Music and After (2010), Salonen isn’t mentioned.

“If I write it, will you play it?” Yo-Yo Ma and other celebrated soloists readily said yes.
(Anne Ryan, courtesy Chicago Symphony Orchestra)

Salonen, who turns 60 in June, once said he became a conductor to ensure that his compositions would be performed, and the L.A. Philharmonic has remained a great collaborator. Moreover, star soloists like Leila Josefowicz, who premiered his rhapsodic and pensive Violin Concerto in 2009, as well as Yefim Bronfman and Yo-Yo Ma, who gave first performances of his piano and cello concertos, respectively, have helped advance his steadily rising profile as a composer-conductor.

Now comes Salonen’s Pollux, a shimmering 12-minute orchestral work, which received its premiere with Gustavo Dudamel leading the Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall on April 13. (I heard the April 14 performance, the second of three).

Starting in Boston on April 25, the Phil takes Pollux on tour with two 20th-century classics – Edgard Varèse’s Amériques and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. The program then travels to Washington, D.C., New York, and, in May, to London and Paris.

Castor and Pollux coin of Antiochos VII era, 2nd century BC. (Wiki)

The first of two independent but linked orchestral works, Pollux isn’t a major piece, at least not yet. Indeed, at its quiet conclusion, it felt incomplete. Its brother, the extroverted and speedier Castor, is presumably still in the composition stage. As Salonen explained in his program note, he planned a single composition but found the material wanted to “grow in two completely opposite directions.” This dichotomy – incidentally, Dichotomie is the title of his two-movement 2000 piano piece, which also started out as one formal unit – led him to think of the myth of non-identical twins, the immortal Pollux and mortal Castor, from Greco-Roman mythology.

Pollux displayed Salonen’s subtle gifts for orchestration and narrative focus. The opening string arpeggios develop into a Ravel-like, impressionistic sound world; flutes and piccolo, along with brasses, slowly added layers to the warmly sonorous blend. The composer noted that the piece utilizes a mantra rhythm he heard in a Paris restaurant, where a post-grunge band played a bass line on the background track.  Modified and slowed down, this rhythmic pattern added a darker undercurrent, with accumulating dense textures briefly suggesting, at least to this listener, a passage out of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler.

Music director Gustavo Dudamel led the world premiere. (Nohely Oliveros, FidelioArts)

Throughout, Dudamel and the orchestra captured the work’s ebb and flow, finely balancing the fortissimos on timpani and bass drum in the chorale finale with a touching English horn solo and simple chord in the strings.

As Pollux showed, even Salonen’s quieter scores find ways – an opening thump on timpani, the above-mentioned chorale’s fortissimos – to keep us awake to the musical narrative. By contrast, there was never any lulling of listeners during Dudamel’s jittery account of Amériques. The half-hour 1921 score still possesses an edgy power; it isn’t afraid to agitate and even grate. Indeed, during some passages listeners put their hands over their ears.

Amériques can accurately be described as a The Rite of Spring on steroids. With its orchestration asking for, among other things, a wailing siren, whip, lion’s roar, and battery of percussion, Amériques emerged as the most modern work on the program. Varèse once said, “A reverent approach to the past has done a great deal of harm.” In the Philharmonic’s unbuttoned, irreverent reading, the Amériques still smashes old formulas. In that sense, the piece remains a powerful goad and challenge to strive for originality.

After intermission, Dudamel, conducting without a score, led the orchestra in a well-organized rendition of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. The symphony is a warhorse for a reason – a straightforward, immaculately performed reading still works viscerally. Yet as elevated and tour-ready as the technical aspect of the performance was, it was difficult to see where a singular interpretation emerged.

Perhaps it’s a matter of style. The Philharmonic is a versatile orchestra, but it isn’t a Russian one. Dudamel did find a safe middle ground by emphasizing clarity of phrasing. The Largo was nicely laid out but rather cool, never conveying the heartbreaking melancholy of the deepest accounts. While Shostakovich’s work is open to various interpretations, it wasn’t clear whether Dudamel’s initially over-driven Allegro finale was meant to suggest something sarcastically triumphant, since the overall effect was simply rousing.

After the final thundering of bass drum and timpani, the audience roared. The encore – orchestras going on tour prepare at least one – was the “Liebestod,” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

Rick Schultz writes about classical music for the Los Angeles Times and the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.