May 26, 2006
Volume 34
Issue 21
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Tuesday, Nov 24, 2020



The world according to Esa-Pekka Salonen
The world according to Esa-Pekka Salonen
by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

At least that's what I wanted to experience after the concert at Benaroya Hall by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The super-familiar and the quite new modern provided a balanced program that made me wish this conductor could take us through the entire repertoire.

Having known Beethoven's Eighth Symphony by heart from my first 1950's recording by Toscanini, I didn't expect to hear much that was new in it. Yet, Esa-Pekka Salonen gave us just that in a reading that was nonetheless in no way quirky or distorted. He reveled in the exquisite, classical proportions and the famed metronomic, jewel-box charm of the early movements, all the while shaping dynamics that exposed elements I had heretofore missed. Unexpected dynamic shadings served only to illuminate the shape of a line or the bounce of a rhythm, never seeming anything but natural to Beethoven.

That the orchestra is first-rate I reported a few months ago when we traveled to Los Angeles to experience the acoustic wonders of the new, Gehry-designed Disney Hall. If you know both Disney and Benaroya, then you know that the LA Phil did not sound quite as special here as they did in Los Angeles. But the players' eagerness to follow the slightest nuance from their young conductor raised their playing well above most other big-city orchestras. Although their horn section may not be quite the equal of Seattle's, they excelled in all sections.

Esa-Pekka Salonen is small in stature and extremely boyish in appearance. His photos do not come close to doing him justice. Very trim, with perfect skin and high cheek bones, he is most attractive. His manner is energetic, but his gestures as a conductor are all effectively directed at communicating the music's shape to his players. And he trusts them. There were many times during the Lutoslawski symphony when he stopped conducting altogether, while ready to give the next needed cue.

Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) was a master of orchestration as well as composition. At no time during his 'Symphony No. 4' did I see an instrument playing that could not be heard. His orchestra is huge, yet nothing was overdone. The work was new to me but very rewarding to hear. Full of dynamic and tonal contrasts, it was always interesting, sometimes downright fascinating, often carrying considerable emotional content. It was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and they have recorded it for Sony, giving us a welcome opportunity to get to know it better. In fact, they have carried it to Europe and New York, showing Solonen's commitment to this work.

Beethoven's Fifth must be the most familiar symphony of all, but here again Salonen showed us new delights, making every moment a pleasure. Tempi were not so fast as some modern interpreters. Indeed, there was surprising repose between the more dramatic moments. While lyricism triumphed over bombast, the sonorities of the great coda to the last movement rose to heights seldom heard in this work. It was a Fifth I would gladly revisit again and again.

The first encore was something quite special: our Finnish conductor led the orchestra in Jean Sibelius' "Valse Triste," long a favorite of mine. Exquisite nuance, whispered utterances, and suggestive sweep colored an unforgettable moment. Then we went to the other extreme in what Salonen described as the world's most profound and sensitive work: Stravinsky's "Gallop"! A roaring whomp of a piece, full of fun and riotous humor, it showed us that the L.A. musicians don't necessarily take themselves too seriously. I hope we get to hear them again soon.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at

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