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Unafraid of Sibelius’ darkness

Times Staff Writer

Esa-Pekka Salonen began the second program in his Sibelius symphony cycle at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night with interesting comments about the Fourth Symphony. He called it the composer’s most private and least understood work.

This gloomy, creepy score from 1911, Salonen suggested, reflected a midlife crisis suffered by the 46-year-old composer, but not the kind that might cause someone in our day to buy a red sports car. Rather, Sibelius planted himself in the remote, inhospitable Finnish north and stuck his ear to the ground -- literally -- listening to the earth, trying to hear its fundamental tones. This was one strange, inwardly-turned Finn’s way of facing his demons.

At least that’s what I think, Salonen said, because there were also gremlins Thursday in Disney. The hall’s sound system can still be a big problem, and about half of the Philharmonic’s music director’s remarks were lost for me in boomy reverberation (some audience members complained at intermission that they couldn’t understand a word).

Then again, maybe Salonen intended the effect, since this is music meant to come in and out of audibility, to make a listener uncomfortably strain to catch a fleeting theme. The symphony begins in a sonic cave, with cellos, basses and bassoons obsessing over two notes. Light is little glimpsed. The last movement sets off with an upward-striving theme that ultimately goes nowhere. The symphony ends mezzo forte -- not loud, not soft. Sibelius throws up his hands in despair and leaves the room.

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Salonen’s performance was dark and glorious, reveling in something that Disney does do well, which is bass. The symphony sounded like a cosmic groan, heaving and quieting down. The Philharmonic is famed as a bright-sounding band, but here it produced a brilliant metallic black, brasses richly burnished and the low strings buckling the soil.

The program was a Sibelius sandwich with light in the center -- the premiere of Steven Stucky’s “Radical Light,” which was commissioned for the occasion -- and Sibelius’ radical Seventh Symphony at the end. Stucky’s 15-minute score was fashioned, like Sibelius’ last symphony, as a single movement.

Stucky’s piece is a study in wondrous sonorities: thick string clouds, incandescent brass, chattering and glittering winds. Fast music invades slow music but doesn’t overpower it. The end is one big rapt, rich sound, with the strings shimmering, rippling, a grand but still muted sunrise. The piece has the feeling of Sibelius’ sound but provides a sensual pleasure all its own.

In the Seventh, Sibelius attempted to catch a star but couldn’t. Themes come and go, some extremely fetching. An air of mystery surrounds this music, composed in 1924 when the composer was 59. Two years later, he would put down his pen and remain silent, in a sort of state of suspended artistic animation, for the last 30 years of his life. This is the deeply moving valediction of a not-old man who can’t go on but must.

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Salonen’s performance was dispassionate, existential and clearheaded. He showed no tears for Sibelius. He did not try to match the almost unbearable sense of loss that Leonard Bernstein conveyed in his performances of the symphony, nor did he seek the radiant glow of Simon Rattle’s performance of the score with the Berlin Philharmonic in Disney four years ago.

Instead, Thursday’s performance was a study of one idea following, but not quite wedded to, the next. Salonen smoothed over nothing. The Philharmonic played with delicacy and power; everything was transparent but not necessarily sensible. Twenty-one fascinating minutes flew by, but I can’t tell you what any of them meant.

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mark.swed@latimes.com

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