Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Salonen, L.A. Philharmonic Find New York Is All Ears

Music: In a series that opened May 1, the conductor and his compositions were mostly well-received.

May 09, 1997|KEN SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — For three years running, annual Lincoln Center appearances by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have been a hot-ticket item, bringing together an unlikely combination of symphonic and new music audiences.

As a conductor and a composer, Salonen at first sent critics here scrambling for a local frame of reference. Was he another Bernstein? The next Boulez? Now, however, he's seen mostly on his own terms, with critics viewing Salonen the composer through the prism of Salonen the conductor. The reaction to both this year--in a series that opened May 1--was largely favorable.

The Philharmonic and its New Music Group presented three programs over four days. The orchestra's new music offering was Salonen's own "LA Variations" sandwiched between Mussorgsky's "A St. John's Night on Bald Mountain" and Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" on Sunday afternoon at Avery Fisher Hall.

*

Much has been made of Salonen in New York in terms of his pure musicality. Hardly a review has gone by without some reference to his skills as a composer enabling him to grasp the mechanics of the works he conducts. To paraphrase Virgil Thomson's comment: A conductor can show you a chair, a composer can show you how that chair is made.

"LA Variations" earned enthusiastic reviews in Los Angeles when it had its world premiere in January. In its East Coast outing, David Patrick Stearns in USA Today called it "intoxicatingly varied and imaginative" with "Messian-style swarms of sound, Bach-style chorales warped beyond recognition and lots of humor." Newsday's Justin Davidson found it a "splashy and stylish debut, calculated to impress," a tour de force of orchestral effects. "At one point," concurred Paul Griffiths in the New York Times, "the sound is so bright you feel the need to squint."

Davidson's descriptions--"brisk," "disciplined" and "ruthless clarity"--could apply equally to both piece and performance. Observed Griffiths: "[Salonen] is, not too surprisingly, the same musician he is when he conducts. The technique is expert, the purpose undisclosed, unless he really just wanted to write a showpiece for his players." Although he noted a new American polish and dynamism in Salonen's work, Griffiths found from his first hearing little substance beneath the surface. But, the same sense of detachment that Griffiths found in "LA Variations"--"the feeling that the music is being exhibited . . . rather than invested with life"--gives Salonen "immediate access to Stravinsky on his own terms," he wrote.

*

In the May 2 concert at Avery Fisher, Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 2, in which Salonen reprised his collaboration with pianist Yefim Bronfman from their Grammy-winning Sony recording, revealed a joint affinity for vibrant, powerful music making that pushed spontaneity just short of vulgarity. "Mr. Salonen was characteristically unwilling to strive for more than he knew he could deliver," Griffiths wrote, "which in this case extended as far as some extraordinary string pianissimos in the slow movement and a tempo in the central section that proved that this orchestra can play faster than the ear can hear."

If God is in the details, then Salonen may fall shortest of divinity--for some New York critics, at least--in the late 19th century repertory. This year's program featured Bruckner's Fourth. Though the Bruckner passed without mention in Newsday, it served for Griffiths as a telling contrast with Bartok, which was placed on the same program. Under Salonen's baton, the piece was concerned primarily with "big 19th century engineering. . . . Mr. Salonen did allow lushness of texture, especially from the strings in the slow movement, but the music was essentially about form, motion and design." Stearns, however, found it to have been delivered with "great insight . . . in a highly memorable interpretation."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|