Review: Esa-Pekka Salonen is back with his main man, Stravinsky

Music Critic

When Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted a climactic “The Rite of Spring” opening night of Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003, the sensation was primal, so much so that the conductor afterward fretted he would never again be able to top it.

In April 2009, Salonen turned once more to Stravinsky for his last concert as Los Angeles Philharmonic music director, leaving the Disney stage with the quiet last chord of “Symphony of Psalms” mystically vibrating far longer than the laws of physics permit and a teary-eyed audience applauding for nearly a half an hour. How do you top that?

Maybe you can’t if it means recapturing a one-time sense of occasion, however much Salonen’s periodic “Rite” performances since with the L.A. Phil have become a quintessential L.A. experience. Ultimately, though, nothing could provide preparation for the start of Salonen’s two-week series, “Stravinsky: Rituals, Faith and Myths,” part of his contribution to his old band’s centennial season.

The programs are closely patterned after a Stravinsky series Salonen created for his London orchestra, the Philharmonia, three years ago. But since most of the first two programs, which were given over the weekend, relied heavily on Stravinsky’s L.A. years and the emblematic nature of his L.A. “Rite,” this was as much a homecoming for Stravinsky’s music as it was for Salonen. There was even further symbolism in the fact that next year, Salonen will become music director of the San Francisco Symphony, where Pierre Monteux (who conducted the world premiere of the “Rite”) once ruled.


Salonen introduced the “Rite” with the L.A. premiere of “Funeral Song,” written in 1908 when Stravinsky was 26. The score was left behind when the composer moved to Paris and was believed lost until recently discovered buried away at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Despite a glowing performance, the 10-minute dirge barely hints at the wonders of “The Firebird” composed only two years later.

In “Agon,” which followed, every note and every danceable yet unpredictable rhythm could have been written by only one composer. Given its large helping of magpie, the score also could have been written in only one place and in one year. Stravinsky codified all kinds of music he had been hearing at the Monday Evening Concerts — particularly Baroque music, Webern and Boulez — which gave the premiere in 1957 at UCLA, shortly before George Balanchine turned it into a famous ballet.

A new dance that Karole Armitage made to go with Salonen’s performance in London wasn’t imported to Disney, and it consequently felt like something was missing. Salonen’s approach was not to give each of the dances a specific character but to find an ever-varying flow with instrumental colors changing with the dexterity of dappled light.

CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK: Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Cameron Carpenter, resurrecting classical music »

The “Rite” on the other hand, left out nothing. It was even more exciting than the boisterously youthful recording he made 30 years ago with the Philharmonia, but with far greater perspective. Setting the scene, building anticipation and releasing a barely controlled explosion of ecstatic energy, Salonen was a not-so-mad scientist capable of both liberating and containing chaos. Words fail.

That was all “Ritual.” Sunday afternoon — almost a decade to the day after Salonen’s farewell Stravinsky as music director — was devoted to “Faith.” But the method, both Stravinsky’s and Salonen’s, was, in fact, more revelatory ritual. Salonen wove together seven either religious works or short memorials, written in West Hollywood between 1942, shortly after the composer moved here, and 1966, five years before his death at 88.


Stravinsky and religion is a tricky subject. He came and went in and out of the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches. He could be open-minded and not. (There was a nasty streak of old Russian anti-Semitism.) Sometimes you sense true religiosity, and sometimes it is the utterly alluring trappings of religiosity he was after. The composer made room for irony and sincerity. His least accessible instrumental music can be spiritual, as can his most singable vocal music.

Every piece has a different kind of instrumentation, size of ensemble and vocal needs. So in an unbroken 90-minute flow, Salonen moved vocal soloists, members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the L.A. Phil around the stage to the accompaniment of gongs and bells and other percussion instruments between pieces. Only a composer could pull this off.

In “Requiem Canticles,” Stravinsky’s exquisitely bare-boned last major work, which opened this ritual, Salonen made every note matter and had the advantage of luxury casting. The mesmerizing baritone Davóne Tines and richly expressive mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor (also heard in the two-minute “Elegy for JFK”) had just a couple of minutes of singing each.

The Master Chorale gave poignant point to Stravinsky’s Mass, while soprano Heidi Stober and tenor Andrew Staples were compelling soloists in a brilliant performance of the 1952 Cantata, based on 15th and 16th century English texts. A flamboyant work, it was Stravinsky’s follow-up to his opera “The Rake’s Progress,” which Salonen and director Peter Sellars mounted while on tour in Paris with the L.A. Phil in 1996 for a Stravinsky Festival.

That production never made it back home, but the excitement of the L.A. Phil Paris concerts crucially fueled what had been stalled fundraising needed to build Disney. Now Salonen and Sellars are back together for the dance-drama “Perséphone” from Thursday through Saturday, the highlight of “Myths” and a reminder that the Salonen-Stravinsky liaison is already an L.A. myth in the making.


L.A. Phil and ‘Stravinsky: Myths’

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: $55-$194

Info: (213) 850-2000,