Review: Salonen, LA Phil, Respighi

The Mature Salonen Takes on Standard Rep, to ‘Spectacular’ End.

By TIMOTHY MANGAN, Musical America, April 30, 2019.

For the fourth program out of five that he’ll conduct during his three-week residency with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this season, Esa-Pekka Salonen, now conductor laureate, chose a program that seemed aimed to please. Not that it lacked sophistication, but it turned out that all of the pieces on offer, save the contemporary one (and in the end that proved good company too), fell comfortably into the category of orchestral showpiece, something that Salonen didn’t do much of when he was music director here. The concert’s finale, Respighi’s Pines of Rome, would have raised the eyebrows of a young Salonen, simply because he never would have conducted it. Too vulgar.

But the Finnish conductor/composer, once a firebrand of the avant-garde, mellowed considerably over the years; we all watched him do it. Saturday’s performance was a matter of hearing how Pines fared under his baton, but in hindsight there coul be little surprise. It was, in a word, spectacular.

The first movement, “The Pines of the Villa Borghese,” a depiction of children at their games, was played at quite a clip, but without losing that rollicking lilt so necessary to its charm. The dazzle of the orchestration congealed into a buzz of electricity. Salonen and the orchestra luxuriated in the next two movements, “The Pines Near a Catacomb” and “The Pines of the Janiculum,” basking in the sumptuous warmth of the scoring, but never losing the arc, both blooming wonderfully.

The throbbing culmination, “The Pines of the Appian Way,” was handled just right too, a not too slow tempo established, the opening solos emerging clearly, the crescendo held back and then released. The extra brass were placed surround-sound style, with platoons in the back right and left of the choral terrace, and another high in the balcony behind us. Salonen faced the audience to conduct the latter. The closing measures may have been the loudest sound from an orchestra these ears have ever heard, but not painful and decently balanced. The crowd erupted. As with his Rite of Spring two weeks ago, Salonen turned for his bow, smiled, and threw a thumb back at the orchestra in disbelief himself.

It was preceded by the work of another Italian composer, Esa (In cauda V) by Franco Donatoni (1927-2000). Microphone in hand, Salonen told us how he had studied with Donatoni, how the piece came to be commissioned, how the composer passed away without delivering the piece until a month later it showed up in the mail, with Salonen’s name in the title. (The piece was first performed here in 2001.) Phoning Donatoni’s widow, he found out that the composer, too sick to even hold a pencil, had apparently dictated the entire work to his students.

Salonen also gave us a metaphor for listening to this music, describing a medieval stained glass window held together by strips of lead that morphs into a slot machine. It was a strange but useful metaphor, because Donatoni opens Esa with tone clusters and dense trills that are orchestrated in such a way — often played by a single class of instruments — as to be colorful and cohesive rather than dissonant and gnarled. These and other motifs then shift and transform for the rest of the 12-minute piece, turning over like fruit in a slot machine, and despite its harmony, the music remains more color-oriented than harsh. More and more silences enter as it goes along, the instrumentation grows sparser, and it eventually dissipates with the sound of a lone harpsichord on a descending scale. A remarkable work, worth wider discovery.

The first half of the concert opened with Debussy’s Iberia, a piece certainly on par with La Mer but for some reason less often heard. Salonen led a crisp and propulsive account, wholly satisfying in the timbres uncovered seemingly without effort and dramatic and atmospheric flow. The many tempo changes of the finale, “The Morning of a Festival Day,” were decisively dispatched and the piece ultimately whipped up to a thrill.

Gilmore Artist Igor Levit then arrived for Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand. This was mostly an intense and probing reading, with Levit both digging into the keyboard grittily and offering silken, dappled hues in contrast. His cadenzas were impressively expansive. Salonen and the orchestra supported handsomely, too handsomely at times — the winds and brass overwhelming the violins, which were split right and left, and the orchestra overwhelming Levit, including in the final bars.

Somehow, too, it was odd to see Levit using a tablet to read the music, using his right hand to flip the pages, something the pianist that the concerto was originally written for could never do.