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WEEKEND REVIEWS / Music Review

A Farewell Full of Life, Color and Movement

Donatoni's last work, an L.A. Philharmonic commission, is a joyful affirmation.

February 19, 2001|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Franco Donatoni was one of Italy's three great postwar composers. His music might not have had the theatrical ingenuity of Luciano Berio's or the flamboyant sensuality of Bruno Maderna's, but it is striking in its flickering colors and thrilling in its explosive gestures. Donatoni, aged 73, died last summer, and from his deathbed in the hospital dictated his last piece to his assistants. It was a commission by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and dedicated to his former composition student, Esa-Pekka Salonen. Friday night, at an inspiring concert in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, it was given its first performance.

Briefly addressing the audience, Salonen spoke of his personal reaction to "Esa (in Cauda V)"--which makes substantial use of the pitches (E and A) in his name--and of the way it ends. After 10 minutes of reflecting his small gestures through a musical kaleidoscope, the composer, Salonen discovered, takes away the mirrors in the 11th minute, revealing the gestures by themselves. When he runs out of notes, he quietly makes his gracious exit. A first sad reaction, Salonen said, was that this was music too private to perform on the stage.

But then, the conductor noticed the joy in the piece and understood it as "my old teacher's message to me, something like 'Carry on, son, it will be OK.' "

It was difficult not to hear the entire concert, which also included Schumann's Piano Concerto, with the soloist Radu Lupu, and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, as an extraordinary confirmation of that carrying on, and not just for Salonen but for the audience and for orchestral music itself. From the dying embers of Donatoni, Salonen revealed in Schumann and especially Beethoven a recapturing of music's life force.

Touchingly, "Esa (In Cauda V)" is the last in a series of Donatoni works that began in 1982 with "In Cauda," a 35-minute requiem-like score for chorus and orchestra. And as a further symbol of last utterances, a cauda in medieval music is the tail that extends a final cadence just a little bit longer.

"Esa" begins with simple falling scales in the strings, tolling brass chords and ringing percussion. Donatoni treats these not as funereal sounds but as a material for frisky play. What goes down, comes up, and the orchestra teems with bits of life. The sound of the score is brilliant. The textures are transparent, and the gestures are full of movement and personality, as if Donatoni had made a musical aquarium with crystal-clear water and very bright tropical fish. Fascinated, we can as easily observe their dazzling shapes and colors along with the unpredictability of their movement.

Notating orchestral music is a complex process, and it is hard to imagine how the dying Donatoni conjured up this marvelous, life-affirming farewell in such a way that it could have been dictated. Clearly, it was an act of extraordinary mental will, which only gives further compelling power to it as a carry-on communique from another world. It was in that spirit of music as having something to tell us about the excellence of the life we lead that the Philharmonic played the work, a spirit that continued throughout the rest of the concert.

The Schumann Piano Concerto is a song of love. Like Donatoni, with his "Esa" motives throughout his final piece, Schumann based all of the melodies of his concerto on a sequence of notes that, for him, symbolized the name of his wife, Clara, the pianist for whom the work was written. The concerto is a specialty of Lupu, who has an uncanny ability to coax melting lyricism from the keyboard. Indeed, it is so much a specialty that one wonders how he can keep it fresh year after year.

His secret, Friday, was through engagement with the orchestra. Lupu would toss out passages of expansive beauty either as challenges or love letters to the orchestra and see what came back. In the slow movement, he was rewarded by magnificently expressive replies from the clarinet (Michele Zukovsky). Another highlight of the performance was an apparent agreement by Lupu and Salonen to draw attention to the middle lines of the music, and in the orchestra that involved enlivening playing from the violas and cellos.

Beethoven's Seventh Symphony was exhilarating. The score that Wagner famously called the apotheosis of the dance is a riveting rhythmic blueprint for music's future. Written in 1813, it predates Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" by exactly 100 years. Salonen conducted it both as if inspired by Donatoni's exhortation to carry on and as a bridge to the three weeks of Stravinsky concerts the orchestra is about to begin. He began the first movement conventionally, firmly in the classical world, but gradually succumbed to Beethoven's audacious meters. By the hair-raising Finale, Salonen was pushing the music (or was it Beethoven pushing him?) into the next century.

Bring on Stravinsky.

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