During an interview on the BBC last spring, Esa-Pekka Salonen described a recent dream he had of hearing an orchestra playing something unbelievably gorgeous. When he awoke, he excitedly told his wife that he had the opening for a cello concerto he was working on for Yo-Yo Ma.
Still bleary-eyed, the composer rushed to the piano before he forgot the dream. The passage, he soon realized, had been lifted note for note from a symphony by Witold Lutoslawski. "It was not a good morning," Salonen bemoaned.
It was a good night Tuesday when Salonen began a West Coast tour with his London orchestra, the Philharmonia, at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa with a great performance of Sibelius' Fifth Symphony. That performance made me think of his dream.
Leonard Bernstein claimed that when he conducted Mahler, he was Mahler. When Pierre Boulez conducted Debussy's "Jeux," he did so as though Boulez had written it. This is something that only happens with the most creative and accomplished composer-conductors. With this Sibelius Fifth, in which it was difficult to tell where one composer stopped and the other started, Salonen joined ranks with a select few.
Salonen comes from a generation of Finnish composers who rebelled against the looming presence of Sibelius, a composer who became the symbol of a nation. For much of his 17-year tenure as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Salonen was both selective and diffident about performing Sibelius until he finally led a cycle of seven symphonies and miscellaneous other orchestral works during his penultimate season. Salonen explained on the BBC interview that Sibelius' hands were a little bit away from his neck, not around it. The performances of the seven symphonies stood out for their revelatory freshness, clarity and modernity — with still a hint of hands-off wariness.
But in this latest interpretation of the Fifth, nine years later, Salonen doesn't simply let Sibelius be. Here he magnifies the sheer visceral impact of a great symphony, as though he moved from the first high-definition televisions to the best new 4K and 5K models, from a 40-inch screen to a 100-inch one. The clarity is greater. The colors are richer. There is simply more there there.
The brass are brassier, and the woodwinds blow through mysterious Finnish forests — but also have the cheery flavor of delicious small Finnish summer strawberries. The sense of nature is imposing. The music feels to grow by natural means, to change shape and feeling like clouds in a spectacular sky. For the final climax, Salonen found a musical equivalent of stop-motion photography, allowing the force of nature to stop us in our tracks.
Where does this come from?
The program did, and didn't, prepare us. The first half was another standard repertory symphony, Beethoven's heroic warhorse, his Third Symphony ("Eroica"). This seemed an unusually conventional program for one of the most innovative of our celebrated conductors and known for brilliant program-making.
Unlike when he was music director of the L.A. Phil, overseeing all aspects of programming, Salonen has devoted his energies as principal conductor and artistic advisor at the Philharmonia for eight years to exploring in depth composers and musical styles that interest him. He's done projects around Bartók and the Second Viennese School. This year he has embarked on a Stravinsky festival, which has included a re-creation of Peter Sellars' production of "Symphony of Psalms," and "Oedipus Rex" created for Salonen's last concert as L.A. Phil music director in 2009.
In fact, after the cheers for the Sibelius performance started to die down, Salonen turned to the audience and noted that we were probably wondering where Stravinsky was. The encore then was the coda from Stravinsky's ballet, "Apollon Musagete."
Really, though, the Stravinsky was in the "Eroica." Salonen did some surprising things with Beethoven, most surprising of all using valveless early 19th century trumpets. But they were used to the opposite effect of reproducing historical performance practice. Instead, the symphony came across as a predecessor of "Rite of Spring."
Rhythms were propulsive. Cellos and basses in the first movement dug in as though warming up for Stravinsky-ized ancient Russian rites. Spring sprung violently. The Philharmonia, an orchestra with an unusually high proportion of young players, does not make a lush sound but rather a tightly focused one, harsh even at times. But the playing is extraordinary vivid, the individual timbres of instruments never watered down for the sake of homogeneity.
Again, where does this come from? The answer may be technology. Salonen does less new music in London than he did in L.A. But he has made this orchestra one of the world's most inquisitive in its use of new multimedia technologies, the latest of which is undertaking explorations with virtual reality.
The traditional program Tuesday — which opened a new season for the Philharmonic Society of Orange County and which moves this week to Northridge, Santa Barbara and Berkeley — includes no bells and whistles. Yet it sounded all bells and whistles, as though the Philharmonia had so absorbed virtual reality that it could now produce larger-than-life effects the old-fashioned way.
Philharmonia Orchestra with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen
In Northridge: 8 p.m. Wednesday at Valley Performing Arts Center, 18111 Nordhoff St.; $43-$85; (818) 677-3000, ValleyPerformingArtsCenter.org
In Santa Barbara: 8 p.m. Thursday at the Granada Theatre, 1214 State St.; $39-$119; Community Arts Music Assn., (805) 899-2222, camasb.org