Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Adams: The Chairman Dances, Foxtrot to Orchestra
Salonen: Cello Concerto
Yo-Yo Ma: Cello
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Episode from the Life of an Artist, Op. 14
Esa-Pekka Salonen and Yo-Yo Ma indisputably belong to the very exclusive club of musical figures whose names make music lovers' hearts beat faster. Therefore, when I heard that the former was composing a cello concerto for the latter and that, on top of it, the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert would perform its New York premiere – The world premiere taking place in Chicago one week earlier, with Salonen conducting Yo-Yo Ma and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – I made sure to pencil in the date in my calendar.
So there I was on Wednesday night, in a very full David Geffen Hall, totally ready not only to at last discover this brand new piece, which apparently was first discussed one fateful night over too many post-concert drinks, but also to explore more John Adams, a short excerpt from his opera Nixon in China offering a seamless transition from the terrific concert featuring two of his works last Thursday, and to hear the Symphonie fantastique again, two weeks after the Boston Symphony Orchestra played it for the ages at Carnegie Hall.
Drawn from the final scene of John Adams' Nixon in China, “The Chairman Dances” opened the concert with zesty vigor and a touch of colorful exoticism. I always find selections from larger works frustrating as they often whet our appetite but eventually leave us hanging for more, but this little “foxtrot for orchestra” certainly was a flavorful appetizer.
A long-time favorite of New York audiences, E-P Salonen introduced his new composition with his signature dry humor and quirky comments, essentially advising us to see it as "one continuous zoom" that was slowly getting closer to its near-impossible goal, and then we finally got to find out for ourselves what he had been working on for the past two years.
Unlike Adams' immediately accessible music, Salonen's Cello Concerto distinguished itself first and foremost for its unflappable Nordic coolness – Once a Finn, always a Finn – discreetly oozing from the entire piece, its cosmic atmosphere, sometimes mysterious to the point of eeriness, and some fiendish technical challenges, which cellist extraordinaire Yo-Yo Ma fearlessly handled with his fierce virtuosity.
Throughout its entire course, the concerto presented a wide range of compelling melodies and fascinating textures, which Alan Gilbert expertly brought out of his orchestra – As Salonen pointed out in his opening remarks: “He gets it” –, delightful episodes such as the cello engaging into a light-hearted duet with the alto flute or into a wildly rhythmical conversation with bongos and congas placed on the other side of the podium, stunning lyrical phrases exquisitely played by Ma and cleverly echoed around the hall through live tape loops, as well as the electronically-enhanced final note, an impossibly high B flat that only everybody’s favorite cellist could make possible, and smashingly did. When all was said and done, the all-around brilliance of this new concerto kept on shining brightly... and a little eerily.
After this otherworldly journey, the Symphonie fantastique appeared like a good old pal, maybe a bit anti-climactic after the concerto’s exciting novelty, but always worth revisiting. The orchestra sounded particularly at ease and delivered a splendid performance of it, even without benefiting from Carnegie Hall’s wonderful acoustics, which had certainly provided the Bostonians with an unfair advantage two weeks ago. The New York Philharmonic did it on their own, and did it very well.