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Proving his mettle in the Big Apple

Esa-Pekka Salonen faces New York's toughest for the premiere of his dazzling Piano Concerto.

February 03, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Esa-Pekka Salonen's Piano Concerto, which was given its world premiere at Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday night, is 34 minutes long and was a fiendishly difficult marathon for the soloist, Yefim Bronfman. It was also a winner in a place where winning isn't easy. The New York Philharmonic commissioned it, and Salonen conducted, his first time in front of this intimidating band since 1986.

The first performance of a major new concerto and one asking for considerable virtuosity not just from a soloist but also from an orchestra unfamiliar with Salonen's style already has plenty of built-in pitfalls. The fact that the score was finished late (at the beginning of the year) couldn't have helped either.

But add to the list an orchestra famed for eating conductors for breakfast, if it so chooses (and apparently so chose when a twentysomething Salonen last faced it). Factor in Fisher, where the acoustics are glaringly in-your-face in that New York way, yet lacking transparency. And finish off with an audience often hostile to new music. The New York Philharmonic faithful may not mind the daily challenges anyone faces simply walking the streets in this crowded city, but they won't stand for attitude in the concert hall and are known to angrily walk out in the middle of modern pieces they don't like.

The Philharmonic often opens its Thursday-morning dress rehearsals to the public, and this Thursday morning looked like trouble. Salonen began with a run-through of "Pictures at an Exhibition," which closed the evening's program. A working rehearsal, he stopped to fix a couple of small things, causing a woman behind me no end of irritation. "Picky, picky, picky," she loudly griped. "Lorin Maazel would never do that." The orchestra played dutifully and dully. The brass were lousy.

Thursday night, the concert didn't start well. The opener, Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin," was fast and clipped. It sounded cold and the winds were not paying attention. But no one walked out on the Piano Concerto, which followed. After intermission Mussorgsky's "Pictures," in Ravel's standard orchestration, was this time spectacular, and a complete crowd pleaser.

Most important, the Piano Concerto was a crowd pleaser as well, and for all the right reasons. At intermission, another overheard comment was significant. "I hate atonal music," a woman said, "and I was prepared to hate Salonen and his music. But his concerto was the most exciting thing I've ever heard in my life. I can't believe it!"

Excitement is one aspect of the concerto that no one will miss. In the program notes, Salonen is quoted as saying that he no longer sees the concerto model in which the soloist is an individual against society (the orchestra) particularly relevant to musical life today. Bronfman is a protean pianist, a whole orchestra himself. And orchestras are made up of highly accomplished individuals. The orchestral writing in the concerto is dazzling, which is a Salonen trademark, and the piano writing is monumental, fleet and finger-bending, other Salonen trademarks.

But this is also a piano concerto for orchestra, in that different orchestra sections are featured, and there is considerable solo writing. In the first movement, the principal viola and the piano have a long scurrying duet. A bit later in the movement, an alto saxophone has a flowing melody of the sort John Adams sometimes writes. Percussion gets a workout. Drums dissect the beat and throw it off. A section for metallic percussion has a Southeast Asian ring.

Salonen and Bronfman have long been friends, have played through much of the major 20th century piano concerto repertory together, have recorded Bartok and Rachmaninoff cycles and can be amusing when they egg each other on. In his concerto, Salonen acknowledges all of that and in the middle of the second part (it is in three "parts," not movements, although that amounts to the same thing), there are a couple of big Rachmaninoff moments. The gestures are Rach 3, but the harmonies and the complex piano figurations are more modern. The result causes a smile.

Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand is a clear influence, but Salonen has written a concerto for two left hands (in the Ravelian sense of seeming as though it is for 20 fingers). Bronfman does everything -- rapid scales, fabulously complex figurations, great percussive banging, trills and tremulous -- and often he does them all at once and he rarely stops.

The first part, which is about half the length of the concerto, is a continually engaging invention. The second is stranger, almost mystical and then Rachmaninoff lumbers in. The third has an arresting rhythmic propulsion and flair, if less substance.

In the end, the concerto is a major addition to the repertory, fresh and distinctive of voice but still closely tied to tradition. I can't think of another composer today who manages that trick quite so well.

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