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Esa-Pekka Salonen may be a grand old man of 48, but he still looks, acts and performs like a boy wonder. Smart, cool, energetic and a technical whizz, he commands attention the instant he mounts a podium. Call it (shudder) charisma.
Best known as a conductor, he regularly protests that he regards himself as a composer first, a maestro second. Now that he is taking on the Philharmonia of London in addition to his long-standing post with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a sceptic might wonder when the ageing Wunderkind will find time to create – as opposed to recreate. Hope must spring internal.
On Thursday Salonen paid a rare visit to the receptive New York Philharmonic, and brought along his brand-new Piano Concerto, commissioned by this institution together with the BBC, Radio France and the Hamburg Rundfunk. The abrasive premiere was bookended by some easy-to-take Ravel, intended, perhaps, to mitigate any pain caused by the novelty.
One can debate Salonen’s sensitivity to romantic sentiment. He doesn’t make much of it as a conductor, and he doesn’t succumb to it in his own creations. He tends to avoid the issue in any case by favouring programmes that value pizzazz over reflection. And so it was here. First he enforced Gallic flair in Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin. Then he mustered a dapper splash through Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition as smoothed out by Ravel.
Played between these Great Hits, the Concerto suggested a 33-minute obstacle course for a steel-fingered superman at the keyboard – the redoubtable Yefim Bronfman – and a hyperpercussive ensemble. Salonen’s music is taut, tough and clangorous. Rhythmically complex, it evolves in pounding theatrics, swirling glissandos, fragmented motives and convoluted textures. Whether fast or slow (mostly fast), it remains stubbornly gnarled, bravely dissonant, pervasively grim and grumbly. The first-nighters registered approval. Of course, one person’s dynamism is another person’s – OK, this person’s – noise.
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