Entertainment & Arts

European Concert Diary: Esa-Pekka Salonen’s ‘Karawane’ in Zurich

Cabaret Voltaire
Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, the birthplace of Dada.
(Mark Swed)
Music Critic

After nearly a century, Dada — the art movement begun here, in safe Switzerland, to tweak established conditions at a time when the establishment meant the institutions that had led the world into war — is now itself part of the establishment. Its works hang in the best museums. A restaurant in Delray Beach, Fla., is named Dada, as is a bar in Sheffield, England. 

Cabaret Voltaire, the funky small club where Dada began in 1916, is still a somewhat funky small club in what is now an elegant district (Lenin, in 1916, lived across the street). The cabaret has been maintained for its historical importance, and, for around $5, you can watch an instructional documentary about the movement and its anti-capitalist roots. You can then purchase a bag from the Freitag pop-up store in the lobby. 

No matter: Dada lives. On Thursday, you only had to cross the river and walk to Zurich’s ornate ultra-establishment concert hall, the Tonhalle, after which Switzerland’s most important orchestra is named. The Zurich Tonhalle has a new, 27-year-old music director who has the capacity to excite and astonish, and who promises to put Zurich on the international orchestral map in a big way.

That young conductor happens to be Lionel Bringuier, the former assistant and resident conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His first act of business at a season-opening gala on Wednesday in Zurich was to premiere a new piece by his former mentor in L.A., Esa-Pekka Salonen. I heard the program’s repeat the next night, which was televised live.


“Karawane” is a mischievous, madcap 30-minute work for orchestra and chorus based on a gibberish text by a Dada founder, Hugo Ball. It is Salonen’s first big work since leaving the L.A. Phil five years ago (after 17 years as music director) to devote more time to composing.

The main thing is that “Karawane,” completed this summer after Salonen and his family moved back to Santa Monica from London, is a hit. It bodes well not just for the continuing spirit of Dada and, in a thrilling performance, for Bringuier’s rising career (about which there will be much more next Sunday in The Times) but also for a long-awaited Salonen opera said to be gestating.

“Karawane” channels Salonen’s inner caveman (who knew?), treating the text of made-up words (the opening is: “jolifant bambla o falli bambla) as a springboard for a circus of styles and emotions. Written in a double cycle, the second part intensifying the first, the score propels from one entrancing dreamlike state to another, from one extreme (nocturnal quiescence) to another (a wild Javanese monkey chant).

It illuminates a brilliant Salonenesque landscape, which is sci-fi alien while tied to history. Gustavo Dudamel was in the audience and after the concert said he couldn’t  wait to conduct it. But he will have to wait. The piece has several co-commissioners, including the New York Philharmonic, which will give the U.S. premiere early next season under Alan Gilbert. A month later, Bringuier brings “Karawane” to the the L.A. Phil. 


Meanwhile, Salonen, one of the world’s most in-demand conductors, said sheepishly Thursday that no one has yet asked him to conduct it. Having always having thought of himself as a composer who conducts, not the other way around, he now is unquestionably that.

So I wouldn’t put much stock in new rumors that the composer of “Karawane” is on the shortlist to become music director of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. There are other conductors also qualified for that job. Salonen has more important business. And, sorry, Amsterdam, Zurich has already snapped up Bringuier. But, he’s young. Maybe next time.

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