Review: The farewell to Esa-Pekka Salonen begins at Disney Hall


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Esa-Pekka Salonen‘s last program as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic ended quietly Thursday night. He is leaving not with a bang but with a prayer, a blessing, a benediction. And he is leaving all the lights in the house on as he goes. The house is Walt Disney Concert Hall, as well as the house of music.

As those house lights went up – and up and up – members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale surrounded the orchestra and conductor in a huge ritual embrace. They sang “Alleluia. Laudate, Dominum.” Praise God. The orchestra played the most magical chord Stravinsky ever wrote.


Stravinsky loved this chord, which closes his “Symphony of Psalms.” Let it vibrate, he noted in the score. If the instruments are perfectly balanced, the intonation is exact and the acoustical space has just the right amount of immediacy and resonance, that sound can survive physical decay. Once you’ve heard it and digested it, the chord becomes part of you. You can always call it up.

Those were the conditions Thursday for this all-Stravinsky program, which will be repeated tonight, Saturday and one final, emotional time Sunday afternoon. The evening began with Stravinsky’s awkward opera-oratorio “Oedipus Rex.” Peter Sellars staged the two works and joined them, using “Symphony of Psalms” to resolve “Oedipus.”

Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” has been an accidental but key marker in Salonen’s L.A. career. In 1989, for Salonen’s first concert with the Philharmonic after being named music director (and three years before assuming the post), he conducted the score in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with an updated staging by Gordon Davidson. The Times’ critic Martin Bernheimer panned it.

Two years later, Salonen recorded “Oedipus Rex” with the Swedish Radio Orchestra. Sellars said at the Upbeat Live pre-concert talk Thursday that when he heard it, he thought the young conductor got absolutely everything wrong. In 1997, Salonen programmed “Oedipus” in a concert version at the Chandler. This time he upstaged Stravinsky. On that same program was the premiere of Salonen’s breakthrough “LA Variations.” The Stravinsky was impressive if a little on the remote side. Salonen’s score was the news of the night.

Sellars also said at the Upbeat Live that he recently re-listened to the old “Oedipus” CD and now found that it sounded good. And, indeed, the conductor who made that recording wasn’t unrecognizable from the one on the Disney stage Thursday. There was still an attention to detail, a solid, no-nonsense pulse, and a dynamic sense of rhythmic articulation. But all now serve a higher dramatic purpose.

Stravinsky’s “Oedipus” is a queasy score. In 1925 the composer wanted to write something big and chic for Paris. He had secretly returned to his Russian Orthodox roots but didn’t dare show that on the boulevards. He also harbored a secret passion for 19th century Verdian operatic passion. “Oedipus” is a weird mix of it all. A French narration and a frosty Latin text were fashioned by the fashionable Jean Cocteau.


Cocteau’s characters are victims of fate and his is a tale told from afar, we moderns being so very much better than the ancients. Stravinsky sneaks in musical flesh and blood.

Sellars sees his mission to reveal Stravinsky’s inner religiosity, with Oedipus as a Christ-like figure in an Easter Passion play. The Philharmonic was set on a flat stage without risers. The chorus was placed behind and above the musicians and dressed in street clothes (the costumes are by Sellars regular Dunya Ramicova). On the highest level are a row of African thrones and masks by the remarkable Ethiopian artist Elias Simé and the characters of the drama.

Cocteau’s narrations were replaced by texts from Sophocles’ “Oedipus at Colonus” and told from the point of view of the king’s daughters -- Antigone (actress Viola Davis) and Ismene (dancer Sonja Kostich). For the most part “Oedipus Rex” is all pain all the time. The opera begins in horror, the city of Thebes is beset by plague. The Master Chorale signaled the people’s horror through hand signals and magnificently powerful singing.

Sellars demands a theatrically elastic cast. Tenor Rodrick Dixon was an unusually sympathetic Oedipus, as he exchanged hubris for humility (and, of course, his eyes). Baritone Ryan McKinny changed costumes between a petty politician (Creon), the messenger and the seer Tiresias. Anne Sofie von Otter, who was a fresh-voiced Jocasta on the early Salonen recording, was here a magnificently wild queen.

There were acoustic compromises. Without its risers the orchestra sounded strangely more in your face, and the playing had an inescapable dramatic intensity. The singers, up high, were lightly amplified and perhaps a little too lightly. Voices, other than Von Otter’s and the chorus, didn’t dominate Thursday.

After intermission, Antigone introduced “Symphony of Psalms” by relating the rest of the story. Ismene led the blind Oedipus to the center of the stage. The chorus began its hymns in a slow procession from the aisles, surrounding the stage. A mystical aura of kilowatts (the lighting was designed by James F. Ingalls) illuminated every inch of Disney.


Salonen’s performance was full of fervor while, at the same time, utterly serene. He turned 360 degrees to cue to the chorus around him and it felt as though he was gathering the audience in as well.

All evening, Salonen controlled everything but was not the center of attention. Afterward, cheers for a music director of 17 seasons naturally enveloped the hall. But Salonen took only one brief solo bow. For all the rest he was with cast and colleagues. His sought not the conventional solo limelight but instead a communal light meant to keep burning.

-- Mark Swed

Salonen Conducts Stravinsky: The Final Concerts, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.; 8 p.m. today and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; very limited ticket availability, (323) 850-2000 or

Top photo: Rodrick Dixon (Oedipus), Sonja Kostich (Ismene) and Viola Davis (Antigone). Bottom photo: Esa-Pekka Salonen. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times