Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Sibelius: The Oceanides
Salonen: Cello Concerto
Truls Mork: Cello
Stravinsky: The Firebird
Although music-loving New Yorkers like myself are still seething over Esa-Pekka Salonen’s decision to head the San Francisco Symphony after turning down the same job with the New York Philharmonic because he wanted to dedicate more time to composing, we simply cannot keep on nursing our wounded pride forever. And when the man is back in town for two concerts with London’s Philharmonic Orchestra, for which he has been the principal music conductor and artistic advisor for a couple of decades now, we just leap on our feet and go hear what he has to say, no questions asked.
I was not able to make it to his Sunday afternoon concert because I had to catch Cantori’s concert since I had not been able to go to their Saturday evening concert since I had to catch the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Leila Josefowicz's concert in Washington, D.C. But I did make it to his Monday evening concert at David Geffen Hall, which fortunately presented the program I found the strongest one of the two (No offense to Bruckner) with his own cello concerto book-ended by Sibelius and Stravinsky. Sometimes the stars do align after all.
It seems kind of obvious that a program conducted by Finland’s most famous music export featured a work by another Finnish music giant, but things is, as far as I am concerned, Sibelius’ music is welcome in any program anyway. That said, Salonen and Brits treated the expectant audience to a superbly organic performance of The Oceanides, Sibelius' deeply evocative ode to the sea.
Then came Salonen’s relatively recent Cello Concerto, which I had the privilege to discover with Yo-Yo Ma and the New York Philharmonic two years ago in that same hall, and which has found an equally worthy interpreter in renowned Norwegian cellist Truls Mork. With a brilliant technique and remarkable stamina, he resolutely faced the daunting challenge and came out with yet another complete victory to add to his ever-growing repertoire.
And what a daunting challenge it was! Always searching for new and exciting sounds, Salonen stops at nothing to achieve his goal, and certainly not at potential technical limitations. On the other hand, what can be a total nightmare for the soloist can turn out to be an endlessly exciting experience for the audience, just like on Monday night, as we were all mesmerized by the haunting silvery textures created by the electronic rendition of the cello reverberating throughout the hall, or the cellist’s dynamic duo with the percussionist who was playing bongos in front of the orchestra. But those moments, however inspired they were, should not make us forget the impressive range of fascinating sounds produced by the orchestra and the soloist, nor their irresistible appeal.
In all my years of attending live performances I have rarely had better experiences than listening to Stravinsky conducted by Salonen, and on Monday night it happened all over again with the Russian composer’s first big hit, The Firebird. It is a wonderfully fun score to hear live, with its sumptuous colors, countless flights of fancy, and infectious rhythmic energy.
Salonen and the orchestra were for sure totally at ease with bringing this Firebird to glorious life – and that would include one trumpeter suddenly doing his thing from the first balcony – but most notably they also gave it the time and space to become fully realized while shaping the myriads of details that make it such a unique composition. As long as Salonen regularly comes back with such fabulous treats, all is forgiven.