It is 30 years since Esa-Pekka Salonen first conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra. The musical world has changed since 1983, with the Philharmonia giving fewer concerts on the South Bank and more in the UK regions, a more international make-up to the members of the orchestra, and higher ticket prices (though less than the rate of inflation).
One thing, though, is looking settled: Salonen’s position as principal conductor and artistic adviser of the Philharmonia, which he has held since 2008, is being extended to the end of the 2016/7 season – an announcement made to catch the opening concert of the season on Thursday.
Over the past three decades the Philharmonia’s policy has been increasingly directed towards touring its most important projects, either in the UK or overseas. This performance of Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette had already been given in Cologne, Dortmund, Lucerne and Madrid before it arrived on the South Bank, creating the best conditions to bring a work of its orchestral complexity and finesse up to peak performance.
Earlier this year the death of Colin Davis robbed the world of its long-standing champion of Berlioz’s music. Salonen is not so instinctive as Davis in Berlioz, or as marvellously volatile as Simon Rattle, but his straightforward way with the music still took it to a pitch of intensity here. The gossamer-light depiction of Queen Mab sparkled with detail; the long love scene was cool, but tender; and the switchback reverses of the drama, where the music becomes so violently unpredictable, met with razor-sharp playing from the Philharmonia.
Berlioz called Roméo et Juliette a “symphonie dramatique”, but its peculiar structure, part choral work, part tone poem, never fully makes sense. Among the three soloists, baritone Gerald Finley was outstanding as Friar Laurence, bringing nobility and excellent French to his oration at the end. Mezzo Christianne Stotijn and tenor Paul Groves took the small solo roles in the opening movement and the Philharmonia Chorus confidently started the season on top form. The half-hearted lighting effects are a novelty that we would not have had in 1983, but at least they provided an opportunity to see the restored Royal Festival Hall in a blaze of light.