Esa-Pekka Salonen is what the columnists call a hot property. Although nearing his 49th birthday, he still registers impetuous youth on the podium. A technician who unties the nastiest of technical knots with laughing ease, he seems to favour vitality over introspection. It hasn’t tarnished his popularity.
He has headed the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1992, leading some observers to think – incorrectly – that this distinguished orchestra was just a collection of Hollywoodish hacks before his arrival. In 2008 he takes over the Philharmonia in London, and he plans to forsake California the following year. It remains to be heard whether the shift will facilitate his often-expressed desire to spend more time composing, less time conducting.
In February he made a characteristic splash as guest with the New York Philharmonic, offering a showy programme of Ravel, Mussorgsky and, yes, Salonen. Bravado über Alles. Sunday he came back, this time with his Angelenos, and offered a similar success-formula: Ravel, Prokofiev and, yes, Salonen.
The centrepiece cast Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Ravel’s “Concerto for the Left Hand”. He dashed through the calibrated intricacies fiercely, with expressivity bordering on brutality, yet never sacrificed accuracy or poise. It was a dazzling achievement, brashly enhanced by Salonen.
The dynamic-Russian nod involved excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, violent pomp outweighing delicate circumstance. As if responding to past assertions that his view of the ballet tended toward chilliness, Salonen allowed some sentimental dawdling in the love music. The contrast proved effective, even when it implied exaggeration for its own sake.
Salonen’s creative, as opposed to recreative, contribution took the form of an overture of sorts, entitled Helix. A New York premiere, it had been commissioned by the BBC in 2005. Despite Salonen’s self-conscious annotation – intellectual analysis about an accelerando that refuses to speed up and a structure inspired by a spiral – the nine-minute exercise deals inventively in clangorous churning. Textures thicken, motives entwine, rhythmic stresses increase until the ultimate climax, which the composer calls “manic”. Then the thunder stops. Eine kleine busy-musik.
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