Music review: Esa-Pekka Salonen in L.A. with Anders Hillborg
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He now holds the title of conductor laureate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But Esa-Pekka Salonen, back Friday night in Walt Disney Concert Hall for the first of two programs with his old orchestra, seemed to take up right where he left off. He began the program with a startlingly spiked, Stravinskian downbeat, and within a single second the distinctive Salonen sound was back too.
It wasn’t Stravinsky, though, but Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 2 that was given an exhiliratingly theatrical performance, as was Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto with Emanuel Ax as soloist.
Five years ago Salonen led a ‘Beethoven Unbound’ festival with the L.A. Phil in which he freshened Beethoven’s symphonies by pairing them with new or recent music. A highlight of that festival was the premiere of Swedish composer Anders Hillborg’s “Eleven Gates.” And Hillborg returned as well Friday, this time with another ravishing new piece, “Sirens,” for soprano, mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra. Like Hillborg and Ax, the “Sirens” soloists -- Hila Plitmann and Anne Sofie von Otter –- are such longtime Salonen friends that they are considered part of the L.A. Phil extended family.
But if this felt like old home week, an old home for Salonen is always a fixer-upper, to be made new and modern. The big addition, appropriately, was the enormous sonic sauna that is “Sirens.” Played as the second half of the concert, it consists of 37 minutes of enveloping sounds so seductive the piece could leave a listener a little light-headed.
The shock of the new, however, was Beethoven modernized.
Salonen’s Beethoven has not been without controversy over the years. Even some of his most devoted fans have thought it too cool and calculated. But as Salonen has gradually found his own way into Beethoven, he has focused on replicating what made the composer so alarmingly radical to audiences of his day, and Salonen’s Beethoven has become as fervent and powerful as his Stravinsky or Ligeti.
“Leonore” No. 2 is political music, its arc the drama of an imprisoned revolutionary being liberated. We recognize Beethoven’s rebellion against injustice in the injustices in our world. And we recognize in Salonen’s Beethoven -- with its sharpened rhythms made extraordinarily propulsive and musical lines cleanly exposed -– the music of our time. The Second Piano Concerto, actually the first Beethoven composed, is most his most classically traditional concerto. But looked at from the classical tradition, the score is full of radical invention and that’s what Salonen and Ax avidly went after.
Ax can, and when appropriate did here, play with a caressing warmth. His tone is ever full and his lyrical impulses unerring. But he has also become an increasingly intense pianist, and it was his urgency that suggested compelling rebelliousness.
In “Eleven Gates,” Hillborg added a brief reference to Beethoven’s last piano sonata and also to the Beatles by allowing a dying chord to act as a contrivance of seduction. In “Sirens,” his enchantment tool kit is expanded for a piece based on the Sirens’ song in the “Odyssey,” the Sirens being the mermaids who lure sailors and then kill them. Hillborg’s score is all lure.
The text, which is in English and divided between the two soloists and a chamber chorus (members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale), is the Sirens’ song. Hillborg uses various translations and adds a few lines of his own, including “I’d love to turn you on.” He also seems to be paying tribute to Salonen’s ‘Wing on Wing,” which includes two soprano Sirens, one of whom was Plitmann at the Disney premiere in 2004.
“Sirens” opens with the strings, divided into 46 separate parts, playing a thick chord that swells and diminishes like the rocking of the ocean’s waves. The chorus whispers under it, a wonderful way to suggest the representation of a tempting taboo. Whispering is, of course, a forbidden activity in the concert hall.
The soloists call to Ulysses in slow alluring long lines, never giving up. The art of seduction is posed in every which way, be it boosting Ulysses’ ego or playing on his insecurities. After a while a quiet pulse begins in the orchestra; it too fluctuates in crescendo-decrescendo waves, reminiscent of the pulses Steve Reich favors. That seems to represent Ulysses’ uneasy ardor.
There are bits of complexity, such as Messiaen-like busy winds and glittery percussion, but they remain mostly submerged. The main impression is simply an irresistibly gorgeous and sometimes weird soundscape that Ulysses must somehow resist.
Coming on strong, Plitmann soared. Meanwhile Von Otter provided an intoxicating undercurrent. The 46-part string chords and whispering chorus return at the end, and as they began to fade away Friday a cellphone from the audience starting to ring. But even this unwanted shock of the new couldn’t break the spell that “Sirens” cast, or mar a great concert.
-- Mark Swed