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Salonen gets old college try

October 23, 2008|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

The Esa-Pekka Salonen piece "Stockholm Diary" is the one that somehow got away. A boisterous, significant 13-minute score for string orchestra, it was commissioned to cap a major retrospective of Salonen's work in the Swedish capital four years ago. It has had half a dozen performances in Europe. The belated U.S. premiere was Tuesday night. In Glendora.

With the Los Angeles Philharmonic performing in Tokyo, on its last tour with Salonen as music director, the Azusa Pacific University Symphony Orchestra took matters into its own hands during a concert in the Haugh Performing Arts Center at neighboring Citrus College. Christopher Russell, who heads the evangelical APU's orchestral program and is also a frequent speaker in the Philharmonic's Upbeat Live series, conducted. The evening was Salonen-centric: "Stockholm Diary" was bracketed by Haydn and Sibelius symphonies, works with which Salonen has a special relationship.

In describing the piece to the audience, Russell said he had spent an hour with Salonen going over the score, yet the premiere was a free concert for the college community that the Philharmonic ignored. The string writing is highly virtuosic, and clearly a professional performance is called for. But Russell is a forcefully dramatic conductor with a strong technique, and the young string players proved compelling.

What exactly the piece is a diary of the program notes did not say. To some extent, Salonen, who is fluent in Swedish, came of age in Stockholm, where, in his 20s, he was appointed music director of the Swedish Radio Orchestra and where -- if a Swedish television 50th birthday tribute last June was any indication -- he has a habit of letting his hair down.

But Walt Disney Concert Hall was clearly on his mind in this work, which was written just after "Wing on Wing," his rapturous tribute to the new hall, which premiered four months before "Stockholm Diary." The "Diary" begins sweetly on a high pitch from the double basses, which is followed by an alluring rising scale and an expressive violin solo thick with double stops. This leads to a lyrical tune from "Wing on Wing" in the violins, and Salonen all but blisses out on it.

Though not "Wing on Wing" redux, "Stockholm Diary" is sweet music. The string textures are gorgeous, creamy as Richard Strauss but with enough hints of Sibelian reserve to avoid stickiness.

Salonen's strange harmonies make the music immediately recognizable as his. The strings swirl, sail into the stratosphere utilizing vaporous harmonics and bounce around in pizzicato passages. Perhaps a hint of Scandinavian anxiety could be found in the explosive climax, but not in the hands of these enthusiastic and impressively ambitious players, whose instinct is for exultation. The concertmaster, Kan Wang, handled her difficult solos with disarming ease.

In Haydn's Symphony No. 82 (the "Bear") and Sibelius' First Symphony, Russell went all out for drama. Haydn's humor and Sibelius' grandeur were front and center, just where, under these circumstances, they belonged.


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