Music Review : Salonen’s Way : Maestro Opens Season With Eclectic Business as Usual


Esa-Pekka Salonen, who has just announced his contractual intention to lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic into the 21st Century, hasn’t been around much lately.

In fact, he managed to sidestep an entire summer of eine kleine Picnic-Musik amid the loudspeakers and helicopters at Cahuenga Pass. He’s no fool.

But he was back on Thursday--impishly energetic, artistically iconoclastic and indomitably boyish (at 37)--to open the so-called winter season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Apart from a stage apron transformed into a veritable jungle of verdant flora, it was Salonen business as usual. The evening began his way, with a little nod in the direction of modernism. It ended his way, with the belated introduction of a massive 84-year-old curio (some call it a masterpiece) from Scandinavia. Between the novelties came a dutiful bow to convention, with the inevitable hum-along concerto showcasing a quasi-stellar visitor.


Surprisingly, the house wasn’t quite full at the outset, and it was considerably less than that after intermission. However, those who stayed cheered and cheered.

Our maestro for the millennium is making his mark. His way.

For a curtain raiser (what, no anthem?), Salonen offered the premiere of Steven Stucky’s “Ancora,” eight amiable minutes of festive snaps, crackles and pops alternating occasionally with serene ripples. According to an annotation by the composer, who serves the Philharmonic as new-music adviser, the piece is predicated on structural repetition.

In Italian, ancora means again . Get it?


In effect, the music just rambles and, yes, rumbles along, the gentle explosions eventually dissolving in quaintly jazzy syncopation. It is good, clean, percussive fun. Nothing startling. Nothing important.


For his valedictory statement, Salonen turned to the gnarled complexities and bombastic climaxes of Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3, a.k.a. “Sinfonia Espansiva.” Although the Los Angeles Philharmonic had never before ventured this Danish extravaganza, its late-romantic cliches and expressive indulgences have long been known to the rest of the sophisticated music world.

The current catalogue lists 10 recordings, involving such disparate conductors as Leonard Bernstein, Herbert Blomstedt, Myung-Whun Chung and Gennady Rhozdestvensky. Salonen himself has recorded the work with the Swedish Radio Symphony--formerly his Swedish Radio Symphony.

One has to admire the breadth of Nielsen’s vision. One has to acknowledge that he blithely explored expressive paths remarkably similar to those that attracted his more successful Viennese colleague Gustav Mahler. Nielsen’s firm grasp of the grandiose gesture is undoubted, and his willingness to stretch historic boundaries of harmony, orchestral color and form demands recognition.

His major works certainly deserve to be heard. Salonen deserves gratitude for opening the door.

That doesn’t mean, however, that he can instantly convert all non-believers. To some ears, much of Nielsen’s “expansive” symphony sounds merely bloated. What should seem profoundly eloquent teeters on the brink of easy banality. Just when the listener--well, this listener--most wants to be transported to new territory, the composer all too often decides to retrace his steps.

Salonen conducted with obvious conviction and with heroic flair. He never wallowed in the sentiment, and one should be grateful for that. At the same time, he sometimes seemed to stress drama at the expense of lyricism.


The Philharmonic, with Martin Chalifour officially ensconced for the first time at the first desk, performed as if it had been unraveling Nielsen’s knots for decades. The only technical miscalculation involved Salonen’s gimmicky decision to station the incidental soloists for the andante (soprano Elissa Johnston and baritone Todd Fitzpatrick) in the balcony arms of the founders circle. Most of the patrons were so busy craning to locate the voices that they couldn’t really listen to the unearthly vocalise--which happens to be one of Nielsen’s most inspired inventions.


The central soloist was to have been Anne-Sophie Mutter, and her vehicle was to have been the Beethoven Concerto. When bereavement forced the violinist to cancel all travel, the management turned to 24-year-old Siberian virtuoso Vadim Repin, who substituted the Tchaikovsky Concerto.

He played with tremendous flash and splash, reducing his vehicle to an exercise in bravura dazzle. It was terrific, in its all too limited way. Significantly, Salonen accompanied like a man in a hurry.

Repin, incidentally, may not be a violinist for all seasons at the Philharmonic, but he certainly has become a violinist for this season. He played the Brahms Concerto at the Bowl in July, and returns on Monday for the Mendelssohn Concerto at the pension-fund benefit. In May, he comes back to play Bartok and Ravel under Pierre Boulez.

In an effort to soften the blow of Mutter’s withdrawal, Philharmonic guru Ernest Fleischmann sent a letter to subscribers recounting nice words written after Repin’s Bowl debut by “a Los Angeles Times music critic--not one to give praise carelessly.” It may be worth noting that the writer in question, Chris Pasles, did indeed find Repin’s Brahms “vivid and hot-blooded.” But the careful critic also noted that the violinist “was more successful in dramatic, fiery passages than in the brooding, darker moments . . . [and] he emphasized pyrotechnics at the expense of poetry.”

So much for truth in puffery.

* Concert to be repeated at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center today at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. $6-$58. (213) 850-2000.