Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Foreign Bodies
Tal Rosner: Video Artist
Daniel Bjarnason: Violin Concerto
Pekka Kuusisto: Violin
Wayne McGregor: Obsidian Tear
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Lachen verlernt
Simone Porter: Violin
Members of Boston Ballet
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Nyx
Members of Boston Ballet
As I am nearing the bottom of my end-of-the-season dance card, I was at David Geffen Hall last Friday evening not only for the New York Philharmonic’s last concert of the season, except for their popular Concerts in the Park series, but also for the New York Philharmonic’s last concert conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen as Marie-Josée Kravitz composer-in-residence. (Needless to say, we dearly hope to have him back sooner than later as very special guest conductor and composer). And for the last hurrah of his memorable three-year stint, he had clearly decided to go all out with an expertly curated triple treat of sounds, movements and visuals.
Not quite sure of what I was getting myself into, but confident in the artists and endeavors mentioned on the program, I got myself a ticket, never mind the hectic week I had just had or the fact that drinks would be allowed in the concert hall. (Anyone who’s ever had to put up with the unwelcome accompaniment of ice cube clunking noises during a performance will understand my misgivings.) But in the end, I simply could not pass on one more evening with the one and only E.P. Salonen, our classical music home team, and a particularly intriguing program.
Upon entering the hall, a screen hanging above the orchestra, a forward extension of the stage, a row of computers across an entire seating section, and a more diverse audience definitely confirmed that we were in for something different. On the other hand, things like the organically seamless and highly rewarding bond between Salonen and the New York Philharmonic thankfully had not changed. As such, the first piece of the program, his militarily assertive Foreign Bodies, opened with a gripping surge of sounds that had the musicians hit the ground running while a live video feed that was first showing them soon turned their movements into swirling colorful lines. And that was only the beginning.
Since Salonen’s score is intrinsically big and bold, and for sure exciting enough to be enjoyed sans visuals, Tai Rosner’s predominantly abstract video could be seen more like a glitzy addition meant to catch the attention of the younger audience than a called-for component. Feeling sometimes like a throwback to Disney’s Fantasia, some other times like a fancier version of Windows’ latest screensavers, it certainly was attractive entertainment, especially during the third movement, which contained more creative ideas and concluded in an apocalyptic explosion of sounds of colors. The whole experience had only lasted about 20 minutes, but the first break of the evening was already upon us, and it was somewhat needed.
There was no visual component officially added to the performance of Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason’s rowdy Violin Concerto, but Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto readily took care of that with a black multi-layered, baggy outfit and a blond male bun proudly standing on top of his head. As it was, the uniqueness of his grown-up elf look was particularly well suited to the uniqueness of the one-movement concerto, which he started by uncharacteristically playing solo and whistling.
There would be more of that unusual combo, and some folk-like singing too, during the 20-minute concerto, which turned out to be fundamentally earthy and light-hearted, but also contained some seriously intricate, not to mention downright weird, passages. Violinist and orchestra were unfussed though, and Kuusisto brought it all home with the effortless ease of a virtuoso and the insouciant flamboyance of a rock star.
There was more impressive violin playing after the second break of the evening, this time from young and fast-rising violinist Simone Porter, who handled Salonen’s relentless Chaconne “Lachen verlernt” (“Laugh unlearnt” From Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire) with remarkable poise from her perch on second tier left. Her powerful performance also provided the musical accompaniment to the first part of choreographer Wayne McGregor’s Salonen-inspired Obsidian Tear, during which two half-naked, buffed, endlessly energetic and extremely flexible young men from the Boston Ballet seemingly battled out a love-hate relationship.
More of them showed up during Salonen’s extravagant orchestral work Nyx, and vigorously enacted a complicated ritual that quickly appeared to be a barely disguised tribute to the Stravinsky-Ballets Russes’ riot-igniting, headline-grabbing and ground-breaking Sacre du printemps. A musical evocation of the elusive Greek goddess who was involved in no less than the creation of the world, Nyx is a compositional tour de force whose countless brilliant twists and turns were hard to pin down, but still flawlessly formed a fully coherent whole on Friday night. There may have been a fair amount of eye-candy on that stage, but the ever-present goddess still won.
It was unquestionably a worthy finale for the all-hands-on-deck wrap-up party that Salonen admittedly wanted, rightfully deserved and ultimately got. Even better, no booze was needed for extra stimulation, and no ice cubes (although a cell phone just had to ring, for routine’s sake, during Nyx) were heard.