Music review: Esa-Pekka Salonen and Bryn Terfel perform Wagner at Disney Hall

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In 1999, Esa-Pekka Salonen made a potentially blockbuster recording of Paul Hindemith’s “Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber” in Royce Hall, as part of an important Los Angeles Philharmonic all-Hindemith CD. But the titles on the cover of the Sony Classics release were in German alone.

This — the only L.A. Philharmonic recording I know of never released in the U.S. — was not intended for us. Hindemith is box office death in America. So clearly, a capacity crowd filled Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday night not for ‘Symphonic Metamorphosis,’ which opened the program, but for Salonen, in the second of his two weekends this season with the Philharmonic. The popular Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel was a significant added attraction as soloist in excerpts from Wagner operas.


A brooding, booming, vocally bountiful Terfel proved an awesome Wagnerian presence in Disney Hall. He’s a big guy with a big voice, a big star with a big personality. Standing up to a huge orchestra, he got as expected (and deserved) a standing ovation.

But so too did the unloved Hindemith. Americans only think they don’t like this supposedly stolid and heavy German composer. His opera “Mathis der Maler,” for instance, is worshiped in German-speaking countries but never staged here.

Maybe we need to remind ourselves that “Symphonic Metamorphosis” is American music, completed in New Haven and premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 1944. It was heard then as a jaunty, splashy piece that lifted spirits as war with Germany raged. Four years earlier, Hindemith had fled the Nazis and settled at Yale, where he influenced a number of important American composers and musicians. In 1946, he became a U.S. citizen. Salonen has always had a knack for bringing out the vibrant colors of “Symphonic Metamorphosis,” for making the tunes sticky earworms. But what felt new Friday was an enhanced expressivity of every phrase, an almost tactile sense of atmosphere and a contagious exhilaration. The jazz bits were jazzier, the vivacious march at end the kind of thing that makes you want to enlist.

These last few weeks, Salonen has been holed away in his Brentwood house, desperately finishing a big new orchestra piece scheduled for Paris in February. Read what you will into his remarkably happy Hindemith.

And also read what you will into Terfel’s masterly singing of Hans Sachs’ monologue, “Was duftet doch der Flieder” (How it smells of elder), from Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger.” Sachs, the cobbler who happens to be a medieval mastersinger, mulls over tradition. He is beginning to be won by an upstart troubadour with fresh musical ideas.

It was an interesting choice for Terfel’s first collaboration with Salonen. In interviews, the baritone has not always had kind things to say about the kind of Modernist music Salonen champions and writes. That made it remarkably easy to believe that Terfel was Sachs on this occasion, a light bulb going off in head as he wrestled with the future of music, while the orchestra turned on the electricity.

Terfel has also spoken of his difficulty with German, and maybe that extra effort is what has made his diction so robust. Every word was meant to matter. And every note was meant to matter too. Terfel has only recently taken on the role of Sachs on stage. But if ever a singer was born to sing it, Terfel is he.

In the “Ode to the Evening” star from “Tannhäuser,” Terfel suggested a lyricism out of this world, which is exactly where Wagner placed it. In Wotan’s “Farewell” from “Die Walküre,” Terfel’s sentimentality (which can turn tacky, as in his new Christmas CD) was here the roar of a real god in pain, emotions and singing larger than — but of — life.

Salonen followed Terfel carefully but didn’t hold a large orchestra, with four harps lining the front of the stage, back. He didn’t need to. But in three Wagner orchestral excerpts, he really didn’t hold back.

One thing that will long be remembered is the near “Rite of Spring” rhythmic aggression given the “Ride of the Valkyries.” In the Prelude to “Meistersinger,” Salonen boldly emphasized the contrapuntal complexity, getting it to sound, in places, almost Schoenbergian. He ended with the Prelude to Act III of “Lohengrin,” retrieving the splashy mood of Hindemith. The Philharmonic played like Salonen’s orchestra of old, which meant that the thrills were many. The concert was recorded for download, down the line, on iTunes.

— Mark Swed

Los Angeles Philharmonic with Esa-Pekka Salonen and Bryn Terfel; Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; $44-$167; (323) 850-2000 or


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Music review: Esa-Pekka Salonen returns to Walt Disney Concert Hall

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Music review: Bryn Terfel at Walt Disney Concert Hall

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