As A Musical Olympian, In Sprint And Marathon, Salonen Shows Mettle

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the San Francisco Symphony in Mahler’s Second Symphony, with soloists Michelle DeYoung, left, and Golda Schultz. (Photo by Stefan Cohen)

PERSPECTIVE — Reflecting on his double identity as a composer and conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen once likened the difference in what each requires to that between “running a marathon and a 100-meter race,” respectively. A pair of compelling programs from two of the West Coast’s leading orchestras offered a glimpse of the Finnish artist in both capacities.

The San Francisco Symphony’s program on Sept. 29 gave conductor Salonen a bracing challenge. It paired an important world premiere by Trevor Weston — one of the 30 works this season that are new to the orchestra — with Mahler’s feature-film-length Second Symphony. This is one of 15 programs Salonen has been scheduled to lead at the orchestra’s home base in Davies Symphony Hall this season, his third as San Francisco’s music director, launched only a week before.

Meanwhile, Salonen’s Cello Concerto, one of his most ambitious recent compositions, proved to be the highlight of the Seattle Symphony concert Oct. 2 with soloist Nicolas Altstaedt and conductor Jonathon Heyward.

Mahler played a pivotal role in the relationship between the San Francisco Symphony and Salonen’s predecessor, Michael Tilson Thomas, with whom they recorded a complete Mahler cycle for the in-house label SFS Media — the first such label created by an American orchestra. MTT chose the grim Symphony No. 6 to launch SFS Media. That recording (begun the day after 9/11) won the first of multiple Grammy Awards garnered by the cycle. MTT’s Mahler interpretations rank among the pinnacles of his quarter-century tenure with San Francisco. (He will return to conduct the Sixth at the end of March.)

But one aspect of the vastness of Mahler’s symphonies is that they can accommodate an inexhaustible variety of approaches, and Salonen brings his own profound understanding of what makes this music meaningful. It’s worth recalling that in 1983 he launched his international conducting career when he filled in on a few days’ notice — for MTT, as fate would have it — to conduct the London Philharmonic in the Mahler Third. That feat he famously accomplished without knowing or even having heard the work before.

Salonen’s performance on Sept. 29 revealed the insights of a seasoned, provocatively curious Mahlerian. At the same time, he conveyed such a sense of wonder at what the Second Symphony contains that he often gave the impression of discovering new dimensions to the score.

Composer Trevor Weston after the premiere of his work, ‘Push,’ with the San Francisco Symphony led by Esa-Pekka Salonen. (Stefan Cohen)

The electrifying tremolo that sets the first movement into motion, for example, became a paradoxical point of repose when it returned after the rafter-shaking climax preceding the recap. Indeed, that moment was characteristic of Salonen’s ability to simultaneously maintain a bird’s-eye view of Mahler’s architecture and dig into the telling detail. It brought to mind how a masterful film director maps out a story, pinpointing it with specific, indelible images.

Salonen shaped the narrative with a patient, hammy-free use of rallentando and rubato. He never allowed the tension to slacken, but only to be redefined by new terms. The “resurrection theme” thus appeared as an ethereal enigma, introducing a mystery of its own that would remain unanswered until the epiphany of the final movement.

To allow for the prolonged pause Mahler asks for (but rarely gets) after the first movement, Salonen stepped off the podium and sat for several minutes among the musicians. Then he transported us into a suddenly, almost surreally altered worlds in the Andante and Scherzo, which especially benefitted from the conductor’s ultra-refined ear for textural contrast and balance.

The textural colors of “Urlicht” took on a radiant warmth thanks to the heart-felt emotion of mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung’s phrasing. What had been foreshadowed by the “panic” outburst in the Scherzo (which makes a reappearance in the Third Symphony) erupted with sweeping, apocalyptic violence in the gigantic final movement. Salonen combined rhythmic incisiveness and precision-engineered control of color and balance — the offstage brass became an essential component of the drama — with a spellbinding flair for pacing Mahler’s scenario of unexpected twists and turns. The musicians seemed especially inspired here. From its first sotto voce entrance, the chorus, superbly prepared by Jenny Wong, grew into an oceanic swell enriched by Golda Schultz’s lustrous soprano.

The impression of discovery elicited by Salonen’s Mahler wonderfully complemented the unveiling of Trevor Weston’s new work on the program’s first half. The 55-year-old Weston is the first recipient of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s new Emerging Black Composers Project, a joint initiative with the orchestra.

Weston, who is also known for his reorchestration of the Piano Concerto by Florence Price, titled the work he was commissioned to write Push, citing some remarks Dvořák made when he was returning from his American sojourn in 1895: “The enthusiasm of most Americans for all things new is apparently without limit. It is the essence of what is called ‘American push.’”

Push is a compact, four-movement symphony that ranges expansively in affect and allusion. Salonen, who was on the inaugural selection committee for the commission, praises “the beauty and the energy” of Weston’s music, “and also the sparkle of ideas, which is rare.” Push made a strong impression on first hearing. Each movement projects a different mood and stylistic orientation, but the whole is held together by Weston’s distinctive voice.

Push celebrates African-American vernaculars in the outer movements, while the second movement is a poignant, contemplative homage to the late Michael Morgan, a mentor of the composer. (Mahler, too, honored his mentor Hans von Bülow in the opening movement of his Resurrection Symphony.)

I found the third movement (“City Quiet,” a play on Copland’s title “Quiet City”) particularly appealing in its reimagination of the scherzo idea as a kind of night music of mysterious glissandi and idiosyncratic gestures, including having the musicians tap their feet. Salonen and the orchestra made a persuasive case for the piece, relishing the high contrast of texture, rhythm, and dynamics packed into this score. The result augurs well for their inclusion of a healthy amount of new music as part of their first European tour together in March 2023.

The Seattle Symphony currently lacks a music director, so the entire season is in the hands of guest artists — from veterans like Ludovic Morlot (who conducted the first week of concerts) to young conductors making their debuts with the orchestra.

Franco-German cellist Nicolas Alstaedt was the soloist in Salonen’s Cello Concerto with the Seattle Symphony under Jonathon Heyward. (Photo by Brandon Patoc)

Jonathon Heyward is already a familiar and welcome presence in Seattle, having made an exceptionally fine debut with the orchestra three years ago. His stock has been rising even more rapidly since his appointment as the Baltimore Symphony’s incoming music director (as of 2023) was announced. Along with Salonen’s Cello Concerto, a work new to this orchestra, Heyward offered two repertoire standards by Czech composers.

Salonen has used the concerto format to channel some of his most profound ideas as a composer. His 2009 Violin Concerto for Leila Josefowicz won him a Grawemeyer Award, and his new Organ Concerto will receive its world premiere in January in Europe. He spent several years completing the Cello Concerto, which he wrote for Yo-Yo Ma, composing the bulk of it in the summer of 2015; it draws together some ideas that reach back a few decades. Salonen conducted the premiere in 2017 and has recorded the work with Ma and his former U.S. orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Although cast in three movements and with a familiar sense of send-off in the finale, the Cello Concerto is pointedly innovative in its design and attitude. What Salonen finds attractive about virtuosity, he has remarked, is the prospect of a musician “operating at the very limits of what is physically (and sometimes mentally) possible” in the words of Nietzsche that he quotes, making danger one’s vocation.

Another quote comes to mind: “The term ‘symphony’ to me means creating a world with all the technical means available. The constantly new and changing content determines its own form.” Thus spoke Mahler around the time of the Third Symphony. In a way, Salonen seems to apply that idea to the concerto.

In lieu of Yo-Yo Ma, the soloist for the Seattle performances of the Cello Concerto was the adventurous Franco-German cellist Nicolas Altstaedt, who gave the work’s Finnish premiere under Salonen; he also released his recording of the concerto with the Rotterdam Philharmonic early this year (pairing it, curiously, with Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello).

Altstaedt’s performance (on Oct. 2) was deeply absorbing, communicating both the contemporary, high-tech sensibility of the score and its almost shamanistic timelessness. Salonen’s own commentary on the concerto echoes something of Mahler’s ambitions for the symphony. He likens the first movement to cosmic images of “consciousness developing from clouds of dust,” figuring the solo cello as a metaphorical comet, the orchestra emulating its line “like a comet’s tail.”

Altstaedt leaned into the lyrical yearning of this music, which he phrased with fervid vibrato. The electronic loops of his phrases in the second movement created a mesmerizing effect, at times evoking whale song or seagulls. Salonen’s Modernist roots, more apparent in the opening movement’s “representation of chaos,” blended seamlessly in the final movement and into its cross-cultural impulses inspired by Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Altstaedt’s arresting solos provided the transitions into this ecstatic music punctuated by bongos, congas, and timpani. The concerto ends with the cellist essaying impossibly dizzying leaps, higher and higher, up to the B-flat just next to the piano’s highest note. Heyward navigated this complex, wondrous score admirably, molding Salonen’s ever-changing textures with sensitivity.

The Seattle Symphony and conductor Jonathon Heyward performing in the orchestra’s home, Benaroya Hall. (Brandon Patoc)

As an encore, Altstaedt joined with Seattle Symphony principal cellist Efe Baltacıgil to play the haunting slow movement from Jean-Baptiste Barrière’s Sonata for Two Cellos. As music from a distant era, it added yet another evocative layer to the experience of Salonen’s concerto, with its looping echo effects of a lone voice in concert with other versions of itself.

Filling the program’s second half was Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony — a work composed only three years before Mahler commenced writing his tone poem Todtenfeier, the original seed for the Second Symphony and its eventual first movement. Heyward took an essentially middle-of-the-road view, playing up the storm and stress of the outer movements but also pausing to linger over Dvořák’s moments of lyrical reprieve.

Benaroya Hall’s acoustic brightness washed out some of the score’s colors, and more rhythmic flexibility and tension — particularly in the wistful third movement — would have enhanced the performance. Still, the chemistry between Heyward and the musicians was obvious throughout the concert, which opened with the best-known part of Smetana’s vlast cycle, “Vltava” (listed by its old-fashioned title “The Moldau” in the program book). Here, Heyward showed a keen ear for the music’s timbral contrasts, almost evoking a kind of Klangfarbenmelodie effect from the woodwinds, as well as an overall narrative sensibility that was genuinely engaging.