All Reviews / Los Angeles Master Chorale / Los Angeles Philharmonic / Music News & Info: Classical / Reviews 2011/2012

Listening to “Sirens” without being tied to a mast: Salonen and the LA Phil with Ax, Hillborg, and Beethoven

Esa-Pekka Salonen, in a rare moment without a black polo shirt or Nehru jacket

Esa-Pekka Salonen is back, and there is much rejoicing.

All the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Conductor Laureate had to do was merely walk on stage Sunday afternoon, and the applause was enthusiastic and loud cheers were already audible. He didn’t disappoint. The first series of his two week stint was vintage Salonen.

The headline piece of the day was “Sirens” by Anders Hillborg, receiving its world premiere performances this weekend. The overall effect was what you may imagine Ulysses (the English text specifically used the Roman name) and his crew experienced as they sailed by the temptresses’ island. Soprano Hila Plitmann and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter played the title roles of lead Sirens, singing haunting lines above ethereal waves of orchestral sound. A reduced, 32-voice contingent of the Los Angeles Master Chorale — male and female, incidentally — provided additional vocal seductions, with some whispers and finger-snapping to kick things off. Though there were no truly notable orchestral moments, the score was full of complex textures and thick multi-part string playing.

Throughout it all, Mr. Salonen maintained the transparency we’ve come to expect from his conducting, and even in the loudest moment, the sound was never clotted. He always looks completely unfazed and in control when conducting new music, no matter how thorny the scoring or meter. In this case, Mr. Hillborg’s new piece didn’t demand quite that much from conductor or orchestra; while it made no attempts to pander to the audience and there were no hum-along tunes, it was accessible in the long-run. A smattering of folks in the audience were turned off enough to walk out after a few minutes (you’d think after having Mr. Salonen as Music Director, people would know what to expect), but the 99% or so of the near-capacity crowd remained and most cheered loudly at the end.

I found the whole piece interesting and rewarding. I don’t think I’d make a point to see it performed again, but it was enjoyable and I’m glad I went and heard it at least once.

The incomparable Emanuel Ax

Of course, the other reason I was glad I went to the concert was to hear the first half which featured Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 2 and the Piano Concerto No. 2. While Mr. Salonen’s take on Beethoven no longer comes off as cool and calculated as it did twenty years ago when he first conducted it with the LA Phil, it still does not feel as organic as, say, Bernard Haitink’s Sixth Symphony that I heard just a few weeks ago. That does not mean that it wasn’t a valid approach, and the overture had all the visceral excitement and attention to detail that has become a hallmark of Mr. Salonen’s Beethoven recently. If you have downloaded the recording of this work by the same orchestra and conductor, you’d mostly recognize the interpretation I heard on Sunday, but perhaps a little more thrilling, with accents more pointed, wind solos more vivid, and finale more fleet.

This was even more evident in his collaboration with Emanuel Ax in the Second Piano Concerto. Mr. Salonen opened with brisk tempos and a generally classical feel, to which Mr. Ax responded with similar sensibilities. And yet, the full, rounded tone he produced paired with a flowing, technical precision that was never mechanical gave it just the right amount of not-quite-but-starting-to-lean romantic feel. The cadenza was robust without ever feeling overblown or out of place. It was playing to be cherished, and is exactly the kind of graceful performance one has come to expect from Mr. Ax, and he delivered. As an encore, he played a beautiful account of Chopin’s Nocture in C-sharp minor (Op. 27, No. 1) which drew people in and kept their rapt attention, filling the auditorium with a range of rich sound. It felt like a perfectly natural next step after the Beethoven, and was a masterful choice.

Throughout it all, Mr. Salonen elicited the kind of glass-like transparency, sleekness, and vibrancy from the LA Phil that was their collective calling card during his tenure. At one point during his time as Music Director, he was quoted as making a point of reveling in the orchestra’s sound. Certainly, that Salonen Sound was heard again on Sunday, energetic, precise, and clean, the way a Ferrari — or perhaps more appropriately, a Tesla — drives. At the same time, the strings maintained some of the additional richness they have gained since Gustavo Dudamel took over the orchestra in 2009. So in actuality, it was the Salonen Sound plus alpha. As if to underline the continuing evolution of the LA Phil, sitting as concertmaster during the first half was Nathan Cole, an appointee of Mr. Dudamel.

We’re thrilled that Mr. Salonen is back, and we’re also thrilled that the orchestra he left is in excellent shape and continues to move forward. As the maestro said when he announced that Mr. Dudamel would succeed him, “We are interested in the future. We are not trying to re-create the glories of the past, like so many other symphony orchestras.” Let’s hope the orchestra continues looking to the future, and that Mr. Salonen remains a big part of that vision.

Other random thoughts:

  • After playing with the violins together for much of the season, the LA Phil moved back to playing with first and second violins split on opposite side of the stage. Probably not coincidentally, this is the formation that Mr. Salonen has favored since not long-after he moved the orchestra into Walt Disney Concert Hall.
  • My favorite moment of “Sirens” was when the two vocal soloists were accompanied by what was officially orchestrated as “glass harmonica” — in reality, it was percussionists Raynor Carroll and Perry Dreiman rubbing their fingers along the top of two wine glasses each, dipping their fingers from time to time into a strategically positioned non-instrumental glass of water. Clearly, percussionists get all the fun instruments.
  • After sporting a new spiky hairdo last year, Mr. Salonen returned with longer, more flowing locks reminiscent of Esa-Pekka Salonen circa 1993. The Nehru jacket that has become his regular concert uniform since the mid 2000’s was back.
  • Emanuel Ax has his own blog which hasn’t been updated since 2009. His last entry? A tribute to Esa-Pekka Salonen as he retired as Music Director of the LA Phil.
  • Mr. Ax signed CD’s after the concert. I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone as friendly with fans at one of these post-concert signings as he was. He took ample time to chat with everyone who came up to him, smiling the whole time. With one lucky young gentlemen, he was exceptionally generous with his time, offering to shake the budding young pianist and composer’s hand, and even calling out a “goodbye” to him by name and waving after he had already walked away.
  • Other opinions from Mark Swed, Bob Thomas, and Brian from OutWestArts.

Los Angeles Philharmonic; November 27, 2011; Walt Disney Concert Hall

Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Emanuel Ax, piano
Hila Plitmann, soprano
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano

Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 2
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2
Hillborg: Sirens (world premiere, LA Phil commission)

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