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Five concerts, four conductors at different stages of their relationship w/ the LA Phil (part 3 of 4): Esa-Pekka Salonen then and now

Esa-Pekka Salonen by SONJA WERNER When Esa-Pekka Salonen comes back to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic, you expect finely polished performances of complex programs.  In two weekends of concerts earlier this month, that’s exactly what you got and then some.  E-P was in town to help the orchestra celebrate Lutosławski’s centenary, with both sets of programs featuring major works by the much-admired Polish composer.

The first weekend’s Friday performance was  probing, athletic, and rich in detail.  Lutosławski’s First Symphony, with its traditional four movement structure, sounded closer to works by Shostakovich or Bartók — or his own Concerto for Orchestra — than the Second Symphony that he would pen two decades later.  The LA Phil playing was as crisp and whip-crack precise as it could be, making it sound like old hat rather than a premiere for both orchestra and conductor.  In addition, the orchestra’s brass gave the brief but raucous Fanfare for Los Angeles Philharmonic a no-holds-barred reading that pinged brightly throughout Walt Disney Concert Hall.

That orchestra and conductor slayed the Lutosławski should shock no one.  Mr. Salonen’s relationship with the orchestra goes back almost three decades, and the chemistry between the LA Phil and its Conductor Laureate remains superb.  In fact, E-PS’s 1984 debut with the orchestra included Lutosławski’s much thornier Third Symphony, and it was on the strength of those performances that  the relationship was allowed to blossom and grow to ESP levels:   As Mr. Salonen tweeted:  “Such a joy to be back with my old band in LA. They sound great and still somehow read my mind. Deeply touched & humbled by the experience.”

His evolving skill with Beethoven is an entirely different matter.

When he first became Music Director in 1992, the conventional wisdom was that his interpretations in any repertoire older than Mahler and newer than Haydn were cold and academic.  I distinctly remember a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in the early 1990’s that was very precise, but in an oddly angular way.  Think Beethoven by way of Stravinsky.  Or better yet, imagine a black-turtleneck-clad Mike Myers (the comedian, not the trumpeter) climbing the podium and drolly pronouncing, “Now is the time on Sprockets where I conduct Beethoven’s c-Moll Symphony,” and you’ve got the idea.  Not really bad, but somehow not quite completely right either.

Thank goodness those days are gone.   His Beethoven recordings that inaugurated the LA Phil’s DG Live sessions a few years back are rock solid.  And on this particular Friday evening, attention given to the Beethoven Second Symphony was as committed as you’d hope for; nothing weird here, with Mr. Salonen leading a taut account with brisk tempos, full of energy.  Beethoven’s King Stephen Overture which opened the concert was contemplative one moment, raucous and punchy the next.  The two works may not have felt wholly organic, but everything flowed naturally and unlike in the past, you could enjoy Beethoven’s musical imagery without being distracted by edges of the individual puzzle pieces used to create it.


David Fray

The second weekend’s program was more of a hodge-podge, but still completely enjoyable. First up, Mr. Salonen’s Nyx in its West Coast Premiere.  It is a brilliant, swirling showpiece, as are most of his works for orchestra.  He wrote in the program notes:

I set myself a particular challenge when starting the composition process, something I hadn’t done earlier:  to write complex counterpoint for almost 100 musicians playing tutti at full throttle without losing clarity of the different layers and lines; something that Strauss and Mahler so perfectly mastered.  Not an easy task, but a fascinating one.  I leave it to the listener to judge how well I succeeded.

Michele ZukovskyOn one hearing, I’d say he succeeded pretty freakin’ well, but let me listen a few times to his recent recording of it (with the Finnish Radio Symphony, sadly, instead of the local band) and if I change my mind, I’ll let you know.  One opinion I have regarding its performance about which I am 100% certain is how truly awesome Michele Zukovsky’s solo clarinet work was.  She can seemingly do it all, and even with more than five decades in the orchestra, her skills remain epic (as opposed to other legendary players in other orchestras).  Long may she continue to reign over the clarinet section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Next up was Schumann’s lone Piano Concerto.  As piano concertos go, it’s not one of my favorites, but who cares when you have a chance to experience as commanding a performance as was given by David Fray.  With the young Frenchman hunching over the keys, hair falling in front of his face, all while sitting in a chair instead of the usual piano bench, I couldn’t help but be reminded a little of videos I’ve seen of Glenn Gould.  Mr. Fray’s playing, however, was thankfully devoid of any of Mr. Gould’s idiosyncrasies, and instead was loaded with power, finesse, and good taste.  He managed to get a big, resonant sound out of WDCH’s Hamburg Steinway without using very much pedal.  Add him to the list of pianists I’d like to see back early and often.

The Lutosławski work for the evening was Les espaces du sommeil, an ethereal work for baritone and orchestra.  Gerald Finley was the superb soloist, giving the vocal lines an appropriately mystical quality punctuated with some fire at the work’s  climax.  Mr. Salonen and the orchestra provided crystalline support.  It was quite glorious to behold, and an extremely satisfying end to the composer’s centenary celebrations.

The big finale was Francesca da Rimini, Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasia/poem based on the character from Dante’s Inferno. Despite what some may have characterized as Mr. Salonen’s lackluster reputation in the core Romantic repertoire as described above, I’ve always enjoyed his interpretation of works by the various big Russian composers’.  Perhaps Russia’s proximity to and historical influence over Finland makes it a more natural fit for E-PS than, say, Beethoven.  A 1998 performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth was particularly thrilling, with Tim Mangan naming the “cerebral Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting Tchaikovsky’s heart-rending ‘Pathetique’ Symphony” as “The go-figure greatest performance [of the year].”

No shock, then, that this 2012 interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s barn-burner was a marvel to behold, brawny yet fleet, plush without ever being pillowy.  It allowed the audience to revel in the special sound that this conductor creates with this orchestra in this hall.  When Mr. Salonen and his current orchestra, London’s Philharmonia, were here a few weeks earlier, they sounded quite good, but it wasn’t as good as what we were treated to during these two weeks.

And so, the more things change, the more things stay the same.  The Los Angeles Philharmonic has added a non-trivial number of new musicians since Mr. Salonen stepped down as Music Director, but the edge that E-P honed during his tenure remains razor-sharp.  This may not officially be his orchestra anymore, but it still seems that way when he stands in front of it.  Let’s hope and pray that that never changes.

Random other thoughts:

  • Soon after the LA Phil moved into Walt Disney Concert Hall, Mr. Salonen changed the typical arrangement of the strings from its  longtime standard of {Violin 1 – Violin 2 – Viola – Cello} to {Violin 1 – Cello – Viola – Violin 2} (when viewed from the podium).  His successor, Gustavo Dudamel, has tinkered with it over the past few years and seems to have settled on a different arrangement:  {Violin 1 – Violin 2 – Cello – Viola}.  During previous visits, I seem to recall E-PS switching it back to his old set-up, but this time around, he stuck to  Mr. Dudamel’s preferred arrangement.  Similarly, the trumpets and trombones remained in a single row instead of two separate rows like they had been during Mr. Salonen’s tenure.
  • Speaking of the brass section, it looked like the guest player in the trumpet section for the second set of concerts was Karin Bliznik, Associate Principal of the Atlanta Symphony and Principal of the Santa Fe Opera (I’m not 100% sure it was her, though, so if I’m wrong, my apologies up front).  Additionally, Chris Still (2nd Trumpet) and Sarah Jackson (Flute/Piccolo) both had stints playing 1st chair in each of their respective sections, sounding solid in the process.
  • Also during the Salonen/Schumann/Lutosławski/Tchaikovsky concert, a cell phone rang — two different times.  Ugh.  In fact, double ugh.  (Thank goodness it wasn’t me!)


Los Angeles Philharmonic:  November 30, 2012; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

Beethoven:  King Stephen Overture
Lutosławski:  Symphony No. 1 (First performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic)
Lutosławski:  Fanfare for Los Angeles Philharmonic
Beethoven:  Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36

Los Angeles Philharmonic:  December 9, 2012; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
David Fray, piano
Gerald Finley, baritone

Salonen:  Nyx (West Coast Premiere)
Schumann:  Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54
Lutosławski:  Les espaces du sommeil
Tchaikovsky:  Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32


Photo credits:

  • Esa-Pekka Salonen:  photo by Sonja Werner
  • David Fray:  courtesy of, still taken from the documentary “Swing, Sing & Think” by Bruno Monsaingeon
  • Michele Zukovsky:  courtesy of Vandoren
  • Gerald Finley:  Sim Canetty-Clarke

One thought on “Five concerts, four conductors at different stages of their relationship w/ the LA Phil (part 3 of 4): Esa-Pekka Salonen then and now

  1. Pingback: Listen online now to upcoming release of Lutosławski symphony cycle by Salonen and LA Phil « All is Yar

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