Saturday, April 14, 2012

Yes, Virginia, the BSO can still sound great - Esa-Pekka Salonen proves it

Salonen in action with Philharmonia.
I confess that after Missa Solemnis a few weeks back, followed by a good-but-not-great "German Requiem," I felt like giving up on the BSO. I also didn't feel much like writing about it; as with the A.R.T. and other entrenched artistic institutions, talking about their performances honestly always leads to an email-box full of outraged blowback from their silly partisans. But I wanted to catch Esa-Pekka Salonen's concert this weekend, first because I wanted to hear this conductor (at left) live, and second, because he is one of those classical music globe-trotters currently under consideration to take James Levine's vacant spot at the podium.

And judging from the performance last night, we'd be very lucky to lure Salonen here.  He has all of Levine's technical chops, that was clear from a program that included Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, Stravinsky full score for The Firebird, and Salonen's own Violin Concerto - only he's so much better than Levine in so many ways!

Chief among these may be that he simply showed up for his concert.  (This also gives him a big leg up over other recent "auditioners"!)  Salonen has also already led a major metropolitan orchestra (the L.A. Philharmonic) to global prominence - his base is now the Philharmonia Orchestra in London; so he has a proven track record in cultural leadership.  And at 53, he is younger than Levine - and not just physically healthier, but actually intellectually younger; with Salonen, we wouldn't be stuck in some mid-twentieth-century debate over Schoenberg and Beethoven.  Up on the podium, Salonen also gives the sense of a more open and experimental presence (it helps that he's kind of cute, and looks a decade younger than his age). Moreover, Salonen simply conveys a sense of personality.  Let's be honest - even though I know this hurts - Levine was always a vacancy on stage, because his actual life was utterly closeted; what we got instead was his devotion to technical musical perfection, which was hardly the same thing.  In a way, Levine was a monument to a live unlived (and unloved, except at one remove);  in contrast Salonen seems quite alive, emotionally, politically, and sexually; with him, you feel the BSO might suddenly gain a conducting figurehead with a presence, a profile, like Handel and Haydn and Boston Baroque have always had.

It also probably helps that Salonen is more open to the modes of pop music - in something of the manner of Thomas Adès - than most classical music globe-trotters.  That was the impression left, anyway, by his Violin Concerto, which didn't, I admit,  entirely blow me away, although it certainly has its moments.  Its opening movement ("Mirage") is a kind of millennial variant on Ligeti - gorgeous with deep notes of dread - overlaid with frenzied figures from Glass; its following sections ("Pulse I" and "Pulse II") leaned even more heavily on Glass - buffed with a subtler version of that pop phenomenon's zen-pop sheen; its finale ("Adieu") proved a bit more interesting, and seems intended as a literal metaphor (as the entire piece does, in fact) for Salonen's departure from the modernist strictures of his youth.  It's a big, solid piece that wowed the BSO audience (as it was designed to wow the crowds at Disney Hall), but it's pretty derivative, and in the end Salonen seems to lack the intellectual rigor of Adès (another major presence at the L.A. Philharmonic, btw).  The Violin Concerto ends with a famously "surprising" chord that's out of the harmonic sequence provided so far; Salonen has said this represents the idea that something "new" is just around the corner.  Only why isn't the Concerto itself that "something new"?  (That is basically what's wrong with it.)

A Bakst design for The Firebird.
Okay, so he's not a great composer; his connection with the young peoples, though, is what the BSO management currently craves - and let's face it, they've always had more money than brains - and I think he has more integrity than, say, Diane Paulus, who represents the low end of this kind of thinking.

And - AND - he's just a terrific conductor (at least of Ravel and Stravinsky!).  The opening movement of Tombeau was sublime; the piece did lose a little rhythmic loft as it progressed - I think Salonen's tempi sometimes tend toward the contemplative; and perhaps the meaning of the finale was somewhat unfocused.  This was still a superb performance, though.  The BSO is a famously recalcitrant set of musicians - they generally only play well for people they want to play well for.  Clearly they want to play for Salonen, and it showed.

If anything, Stravinsky's complete music for The Firebird was even more ravishing.  I admit I'm a little fonder of the 1919 suite in the concert hall; without the actual ballet going on (which I wish the Boston Ballet would do!), the original score always seems to me a bit wandering, and half-abstracted.  Still, it's good to hear it again in full, and Salonen seemed to approach it with a sense of perspective grounded in an awareness of the career for which it proved a springboard.  And somehow the conductor found a structural sense to the piece's harmonics, too, despite its narrative discourse, and his sense of atmosphere and texture proved unsurpassed (texture may be his greatest talent, in fact, which is key to the mixed atmosphere of savagery and magical awe that defines The Firebird).  I admit I've never seen this piece fail - it's quite possibly the greatest ballet score in existence - but this performance was still a dazzler.

I should mention, too, that this very program was one of the better ones I remember from the BSO's recent history.  There were subtly pleasing thematic affinities here.  Ravel's elegy to Couperin paralleled mournful notes struck in Salonen's own farewell to modernism in his Violin Concerto - which tapped here and there into twentieth-century modes that grew from Stravinsky.  Beyond these historical connections there were sometimes pleasing sympathies - or oppositions - in tone and color; so I left thinking Salonen might lead the BSO out of its whole "greatest hits - plus Tan Dun!" mentality, too.  Sigh.  I'm not sure, really, why he would come to Boston - I mean, he's already done this before, hasn't he?  But we can dream, can't we?

1 comment:

  1. There's an interesting interview with him by Stearns of the Philly Enquirer, here: