Jan. 18, 1997
And containing what the formerly cool, abstract composer says is his most joyous music, it also sounds very much the piece of a proud father whose composition habits have dramatically changed now that he has two young daughters. No longer is his first thought of the day about complex hexachords, Salonen recently told Gramophone magazine, but rather "who the hell is jumping up and down on my stomach at 6 o'clock in the morning." Even Salonen's description of the specific variations uses a kind of musical baby talk -- Big Chord, Big Machine.
Indeed, "LA Variations" begins with a couple of those complex six-note chords but instead of making stern 12-tone music out of them, jumps up and down. The chords themselves are introduced in wonderful upward sweeps and arrive with a big, lush noise. They fragment into sprightly themes that have a folk-music quality. And the piece takes off as a kind of concerto for orchestra.
"LA Variations" sounds original in great part because of the brilliant orchestration. Salonen knows what his concertmaster and first trumpet can do and then puts them together in ways other composers without such players on hand would likely never imagine.
-- Mark Swed
April 20, 1998
Esa-Pekka Salonen comes from a culture with a passion for shocking the system. Finns like nothing better than to bake in a sauna until consciousness reaches the point just short of utter torpor, then run outside lickety-split and jump into an ice-cold lake. The setting is invariably magnificent and the enlivening jolt the plunge causes, the sense of exhilaration and heightened awareness, is indescribable.
And that, in a sense, is how Salonen began the Los Angeles Philharmonic's "Around Ligeti" Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The festival celebrates next month's 75th birthday of the Hungarian composer by highlighting his music over the next five weeks, and it would have been no problem for Salonen to ease into this music. . . .
Salonen, however, fearlessly dove right in with the Requiem, completed in 1965. Here is a perfect example of the European avant-garde that has been so under attack lately for having supposedly destroyed the public's faith in modern music. It has no melody. Its harmonies are dissonant and harsh. The vocal soloists leap and shriek. Symphony audiences don't want adventure, we are told. They come for the sauna, not the lake.
-- Mark Swed
Oct. 24, 2003
Every opening has its snafus. The Philharmonic has done a remarkable job of preparing itself to play in this new hall, and it treated its opening admirably as a concert, not a speech-fest. The ushers didn't have enough programs, however, and many audience members had no idea what was being played or why.
Yet with the "Rite," everything was righted to such a degree that I have never sat through a performance of it which so riveted companions. The clarity of solo instruments, from the solo bassoon in its sour-sweet high range at the start to the wondrous thunder of timpani that vibrated the seats, offered one revelatory thrill after another.
The piece is a Salonen and Philharmonic specialty, and the point here was that anyone who had ever heard them play it in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion had never really heard it.
-- Mark Swed
Dec. 7, 2004
"Tristan" -- the once famously unsingable opera about a love so potent it can be realized only by the removal of all obstacles, those of the physical world, those of life itself -- stretches to the breaking point everyone who confronts it. Any performance that doesn't try too much fails before it starts.
The Philharmonic tried too much. Everything that should have worked, worked. Everything that shouldn't have worked, worked. If the "Tristan Project" is not the greatest moment in the orchestra's history, I can't imagine what was. . . .
And it wasn't long into the Philharmonic's performance of the "Tristan" prelude Friday night before it was clear that something extraordinary was happening. In fact, 18 bars in, when the motif of the gaze, the music of infinite longing and searching, swept through the hall with a luminosity and clarity that felt like sound turned to light, one knew.
You may need no other reason to attend "Tristan" than the sheer beauty of sound the Philharmonic makes in the Disney Hall. Salonen reseats the orchestra, with the violins on the right and cellos and basses next to the first violins, to translucent effect. If you love details in Wagner, and he was a master of them, you will be in heaven. You have to listen fast, however, because it's also a fast "Tristan," full of exciting urgency.
-- Mark Swed