Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen Hindemith: Ragtime (Well-Tempered)
Bach: Two Chorale Preludes (arr. Schoenberg)
Hindemith: Mathis der Maler Symphony
After a Friday evening spent going to JFK, waiting for almost two hours at JFK and coming back from JFK, on Saturday evening I was very much looking forward to hitting the concert road again. This time, as if to keep the logistics to a blissful minimum, I just had to walk down Broadway to David Geffen Hall for a performance by the New York Philharmonic that included an eagerly awaited double dose of the master of cool himself , Esa-Pekka Salonen, who was appearing on the program as conductor and composer.
However, even if Finland’s finest export remains a supremely popular figure among music-loving New Yorkers, the concert hall was dishearteningly far from packed for a Saturday night, the top tier being even completely empty. It is no wonder then that, despite repeated heavy coaxing from the local powers that be, the man keeps on choosing the West Coast over the Big Apple as a base. We simply may not deserve him. That said, I must also admit that, if it had not been for his ubiquitous presence, the program would not have particularly appealed to me either. And yet, I can now say that the audience members who did show up got vastly rewarded.
To get the party going, we had the immutable Johann Sebastian Bach, but with a few twists, because when the œuvre is timeless, it can be adapted endlessly, and even sometimes cleverly, as we were about to find out. A quick but flavorful amuse-bouche, Paul Hindemith’s Ragtime (Well-Tempered) was a feisty take on the Fugue in C Minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, while Arnold Schoenberg’s arrangements of the quiet “Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele” and the high-spirited “Komm, Gott, Schöpfer, heiliger Geist” received powerfully eloquent performances. Together, those three miniatures made a very enjoyable concert opener while preparing us for the even more intriguing undertakings to come.
Once of the most notable pleasures of having Salonen on the podium, beside his conducting that is, is listening to him narrate the genesis of his compositions with his trademark deadpan sense of humor. And there he was on Saturday night, explaining that the idea for his Gemini score came from a “post-grunge” bassline he heard and immediately became obsessed with as he was having dinner in a trendy Paris restaurant after having just conducted an opera at La Bastille.
Later on, while working on it, he found himself pulled into two very different directions and consequently ended up with two separate and highly contrasting pieces inspired by the mythological non-identical twins Castor (the thoughtful immortal), which premiered in Los Angeles in April 2018, and Pollux (the rambunctious mortal), which premiered also in Los Angeles last month. Apparently, the most uncomfortable positions can at times yield the most satisfying results.
Starting with the introspective Castor, the strings proceeded to smoothly unfurl their attractive lines while crystalline bells randomly chimed in and discreet horns occasionally made themselves heard for the dark-hued half of the combo. The extroverted Castor, on the other hand, made his grand boisterous entrance and just kept going unabated, leaving no instruments unplayed, including a gigantic gong and two pairs of horizontal drums standing in the back of the stage. Although each piece could easily stand on its own, the combination of the two emphasized the wildly imaginative nature of the endeavor as well as the sheer brilliance of its execution. And just like that, Salonen The Composer scored big again.
More Hindemith was in store for us after intermission, which at this point we happily welcome with open ears. Inspired from his opera-in-then-progress Mathis der Maler, his symphony by the same name has remained one of his most popular works, and for good reasons too. Based on the life of German Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald, each of the three movements draws from what is probably the artist’s most spectacular achievement, the Isenheim Altarpiece.
And in fact, colors abound in both the painted triptych and the musical score, and were coming out of the latter in all their vivid glory under Salonen’s baton on Saturday night. This undisputed success was far from the reaction the symphony first got back in the days though. In the mid-1930s, the Nazi government was unsurprisingly not thrilled by the story of an artist who would pursue his calling regardless of the political climate he lived in and quickly labeled Grünewald and his art “degenerate”, which was of course a clear hint that the composer was doing something right.
Luckily, the Nazi government disappeared and the composition has lived on, its engaging neo-Romantic sounds having just enough of a modern touch to make them interesting, but never odd. On Saturday night, the NYPhil and maestro Salonen delivered a deliciously crisp, totally committed and intensely alive performance, readily showing the total relevance of Hindemith’s symphony in our own turbulent times. And just like that, Salonen The Conductor scored big again.