Maybe youth is simply valued more highly in California. In 1992, when Esa-Pekka Salonen took over as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he was 35 and reservations were expressed about his lack of experience. Now Salonen is in his penultimate season at LA and preparing to hand over the reins to the even younger Gustavo Dudamel, the 26-year-old Venezuelan.
Renewal is again in the air, just as it was when Salonen arrived in the city. He promised more contemporary music – a tough assignment that he has largely delivered – and will hand over to Dudamel not only an orchestra in good spirits but also the glittering, steel-grey hulk of Frank Gehry’s glamorous new Walt Disney Concert Hall, opened in 2003.
It was a shame the orchestra could not bring the hall with it on this European tour. The UK leg of the itinerary – the tour comprises four-day residencies in London and Paris with a side trip to Spain and Portugal – was at the Barbican, which is not a very welcoming port of call.
Like most American orchestras, the LA Phil plays big. In the Barbican’s constricting ambience, it sounded like an animal struggling to escape from its cage: the decibels rattled back and forth, creating confusion in the orchestral sound, and the brass sounded noisily overlaid, not part of the overall blend. I wished they had chosen to appear at the Royal Festival Hall, where their big-boned playing would have had more room to expand.
Salonen ambitiously brought with him a complete cycle of Sibelius’s symphonies, apparently his first. To almost every other Finnish conductor the seven symphonies of Sibelius are the bread-and-butter of an international career, but as he approaches 50 Salonen is coming to them fresh. Then again, immersing oneself in their chill northern world of dank days and lonely, long nights cannot be easy while the Californian sun is beating down.
At the first two concerts, on Thursday and Friday, the results were highly distinctive. Salonen does not see the symphonies as second-rate Tchaikovsky, but the product of an original, modern mind. Out go comfortably warm textures in favour of rhythm, articulation and a clear-headed sense of the argument. The slow movement of the Symphony No. 2 was absolutely gripping – not at all the expansive tone poem of romantic forests and lakes that it can become, but an inward-looking exploration of the soul, as agitated and anguished as anything written at the start of the 20th century. The bleak Symphony No. 4 and terse Symphony No. 7, paired together in the second concert, were just as unsentimental and played with a comparable grip on detail.
Each programme also included a new work. The better of the two by far was Salonen’s own Wing on Wing, a lavishly imagined orchestral piece of sensuous, shimmering sounds, which throws in two wordless high sopranos and fragments of Gehry’s voice coming through loudspeakers into its heady mix. The idea of Salonen reducing his conducting commitments to do more composing no longer seems far-fetched. Steven Stucky’s Radical Light, based on the evolving structure of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony, went from one interesting set of ideas to another without suggesting a strong logic as to why they belonged together.
In the wake of the top international orchestras that visited London during the Proms season in the summer, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has marked its place at the head of the second division with its rigorously rehearsed playing. For Salonen, who is due to return to London as principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra next year, this Sibelius cycle looks an impressive statement of intent. The second half of the cycle follows on Friday and Saturday. Tel: 20 7638 889