CSO: Salonen, Salonen!

Esa-Pekka Salonen grew up under the thumb of late-20th-century European Modernism, a sort of extreme rejection of fascism as composers maniacally sought to avoid the emotionally manipulative gimmicks that were used by the Nazi regime--especially anything Wagnerian. Like a lot of oppressed people from around the world, he found new horizons in the land of the free, home of the brave--specifically, that one-time wasteland of serious culture, Los Angeles. There, as music director of the L.A. Phil from 1992 to 2009, he was able to escape the prohibitions on melody and harmony and return to composition with a blank slate, embracing more of the sensual beauty of music. The lush yet intricate Violin Concerto is the most recent result of his new-found language; we'll be hearing this for years to come (8.8 / 10).

Maybe I was just high, but the program at the Symphony Thursday seemed to support Salonen's violin concerto like a dance belt, lifting to even greater prominence. The evening started with Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, a piece Pierre Boulez called THE seminal work of musical modernism. Not only does the work stretch the tonal system to the limit, it shows Debussy's mastery of orchestration technique. That is, there is more to orchestration than deciding what instrument should play what melody; sometimes combining instruments, like flute with cello at the end of the Prelude, can produce a timbre that is neither one nor the other--a marriage.

Debussy was part of a long-standing French tradition of looking at music vertically--harmonically--prioritizing sound over structure. It was in France that Rameau first theorized about chords, codifying a system that was the basis for Classical-era functional harmony. The tradition continued with composers like Berlioz and comes to the fore in Debussy--and to a lesser extent in Ravel's orchestral machinations. Perhaps it comes from the language, which is certainly more beautiful sounding than German, though less rigorous structurally.
Debussy's music had a wide-reaching influence, but particularly on Messiaen, who then taught several important composers, while writing many pieces based on the transcriptions of birdsongs. Two of those, Tristan Murail and Gerard Grisey, are two of the most prominent "spectral" composers. Though considered a technique, Murail considers it an attitude: basing music on the physical nature of sound, recalling that "music is ultimately sound evolving in time" (Murail). Originally, this meant the analysis of a sound using FFT to reveal the timbral structure of a sound, such as Grisey does in Partiels, which uses the orchestra to reconstruct the harmonics contained within a single note on the trombone.
This attitude has seeped through the contemporary community of composers, influencing composers like Kaija Saariaho--one of Salonen's fellow Finns--and, I would say, Salonen himself.
The first movement of his violin concerto, Mirages, begins with the violin solo, frenetically racing up and down--like the sort of minor key hoedown in the 3rd movement of the Sibelius--certain pitches randomly accented by percussion--somehow a seamless fusion of timbre. When the orchestra comes in, it acts as a sort of resonating chamber that takes the crisp clarity of the violin sound and blurs the lines. Salonen suggested as much in the pre-concert lecture, but, surprisingly, in performance, that's exactly what the eyes of my ears saw. Throughout the rest of the work, Salonen continues to create timbral juxtapositions, like Debussy's but much more sophisticated. The most notable was the stunning dal niente entrance by the English Horn as it crept in and overtook the solo vioiln (in IV. Adieu).
Like the Debussy, the concerto flirts with tonality--but not the functional harmony of the 19th century. Salonen gives the sense of being grounded, centered on a pitch, without dredging up forgotten harmonic clichés. It's melodic and harmonic without being manipulative, without being overwhelmingly dissonant. It was a great balance of mental and physical as Salonen's strict modernist training was softened by the more pleasant music he encountered in America.
But, because it is not dissonant, because it is not ugly, because it is not arhythmic (two movements are called Pulse), some modernist composers may call it conservative--in the same way that Rachmaninoff was called conservative. His music will be with us for many generations to come, while much of mid-20th century serialist music will be forgotten. In the same way, I could see Salonen's Violin Concerto entering in the repertory. I, for one, want to see it again, probably several times. [It would be interesting to see it with different violinists, because right now I can't imagine anyone but the unparalleled Leila Josefowicz playing it. She and Salonen had a very special rapport on stage, becoming almost erotic in Pulse II, the third movement.]
In the second half, a classic, Sibelius' 2nd Symphony, which I was content to see once, just once. It consists of several beautiful moments punctuating long periods of tangential drifting and trivial thematic transformations. All sins were forgiven, though, in the ending, which was as glorious as the sun returning to Lapland after a long winter. If someone, heaven forfend, would trim the fat from this warhorse, it would be a roasted chestnut for sure.
It also works pretty well for background music; listen here; score here
The concert repeats only once, Saturday, 2/25/11 at Symphony Center.

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