LA JOLLA--No one has called it an Esa-Pekka Salonen festival, but last week and this are turning out to be one. Within 10 days, Salonen is presiding over four different programs with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, all preparations for the orchestra's European tour later in the month.
Then, in the middle of that ambitious schedule, Salonen managed to put in an appearance as a composer-in-residence with SummerFest, the chamber music festival in La Jolla, where his latest work was given its world premiere Saturday night.
The piece is "Lachen Verlernt" (Laughing Unlearnt), a 10-minute chaconne for solo violin, written for Cho-Liang Lin, the SummerFest artistic director, and it was included on a program that also saw Salonen conduct his "Five Images After Sappho" and Stravinsky's "A Soldier's Tale," a program to be repeated tonight in Los Angeles at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre.
"Lachen Verlernt" has an unusually unsettled and dark-seeming tone from a composer whose works have tended to be sunnier. Alone, it says something about our times. Put in context of the two populist symphonies--Shostakovich's Second and Beethoven's Ninth--that Salonen conducted at the Hollywood Bowl on Thursday, and the roseate "Sappho" songs and the sardonic fate of Stravinsky's soldier on Saturday, the violin score says quite a bit about music in its time and place.
The title is taken from a line in the song, "Prayer to Pierrot," from Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire." The narrator entreats the harlequin, Pierrot, her "soul's veterinarian," to teach her to laugh again. In a pre-concert talk Saturday, Salonen said the line reflected his own natural unease as an artist to the way the world has changed in the past year. He also felt the concept might be curiously suited to Lin's cheerful personality, which he suspects must have its own darker side.
On first hearing, however, Bach's great Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 for solo violin sounds the obvious influence. In Salonen's case, though, we never hear the repeated series of chords over which the series of variations are made. Each variation, instead, offers just aspects of that chord progression. Instead, the allusions remain just beyond our grasp.
The beginning is sparse, tense, dramatic--long notes sharply cut off with brusque curlicues. What follows is both furious and strangely gorgeous, impressive virtuoso flourishes on open strings, fancy scale work and passages thick with chords. The final, flutey bars are but the hint of laughter regained, just sweet enough to leave a comforting afterglow, especially with Lin's masterful performance evoking the best Bach playing.
Still, the lack of ready optimism proved a striking contrast to Thursday's Bowl program in which Lenin was hailed as the beacon of happiness at struggle's end in Shostakovich's 1927 symphony, and where Beethoven, in his epochal ode to brotherhood a century earlier, offered the quintessential essay in optimism. Just when we let our guard down, Salonen reveals, history is always there to remind us the struggle never ends.
"Five Images After Sappho," which followed "Lachen Verlernt" at La Jolla, trace the path of a young girl's awakening sexuality, from puberty to wedding. The soprano on this occasion was the opera star Heidi Grant Murphy, who brought a ripe Straussian ecstasy to the songs, a quality quite different than the dramatically nuanced girlishness that characterizes Dawn Upshaw's recording of the work.
With Murphy distinctly pregnant, the soprano inevitably brought other dramatic qualities as well. One could not help but think of her as an about-to-be-mother fondly looking back and also wondering about the future. It was no surprise, then, that the fourth song, a rhapsodic lingering over the evening star (which Salonen interprets as the girl's first intimations of mortality) found Murphy at her most ravishing. In this and all else, she was aided by a 14-member powerhouse instrumental ensemble that included Leila Josefowicz and Lin as the two violinists and Steven Schick as the percussionist.
For "The Soldier's Tale," there was more bold playing from the seven-member ensemble, none more so than that of Josefowicz, who seemed but a small step away from rocking and rolling. Her wildness doesn't always work, but it certainly did here, as she walked an exciting fine line between ardent virtuosity and sheer showing off. In fact, she seemed to energize all the players (Schick again was the terrific percussionist), and Salonen's conducting assured that cohesion.
Stravinsky's chamber-size music theater piece, written just after World War I, can be interpreted many ways. Here John Rubinstein read the text of the soldier returning from war who makes a pact with the devil as agreeable fable. But it was one overstated level too many to have three dancers occasionally attempt to literally mime the story to choreography by John Malashock. If listeners needed anything to watch, there was always Josefowicz dancing in her seat.
Esa-Pekka Salonen's SummerFest program repeats tonight, 8 p.m., $20, John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East (323) 461-3673.