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Esa Pekka Salonen’s premiere with the NY Phil

Innovation and Performance
by Stephen Kaye
Sat Mar 19th, 2016

Composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen spoke briefly on stage before a full orchestra and a hundred singers to explain what his piece entitled Karawane was about. He said it was about language and how sounds can take on meaning. What we heard were musical sounds whose meaning was up to the listener to figure out.  It was like an abstract painting. You look for something you can relate to, you open your mind to suggestions.  This piece gives listeners more than enough suggestions to keep our minds fully occupied. The source material was a Dadaist poem by Hugo Ball who wrote a “sound poem” whose text was sung by the New York Choral Artists—sounds of few syllables—mostly vowels, no words. No matter, the music was enveloping, intriguing, exciting, dramatic, triumphal, and apocalyptic. Alan Gilbert led this massive group beautifully, keeping tension up. You can listen to a video of the piece posted below.

There were shimmering references to Nordic music, maybe the Northern Lights, to Nordic sagas of love, death, and destruction translated to a modern idiom reminding us of the dangers in which we live. I think it was a great piece, performed here as a masterpiece. 

It is not often one gets to hear Sibelius’ Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, yet I was fortunate to hear it twice in a matter of weeks. Hilary Hahn played it impeccably with the Minnesota Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on February 22. The violinist on Thursday night, March 17, at the New York Philharmonic was Leonidas Kavakos, a Greek-born violinist and conductor who has been playing this difficult piece since 1991 with many of the world’s leading orchestras. He also played it impeccably, perhaps more comfortably than Ms. Hahn who called attention to the most technically difficult and brilliant passages, making them breathtaking. Kavakos played it like an old friend, with all the passages blending together as a single, coherent yet varied musical experience.  The orchestra contributed precise, clean phrases. Kavakos rewarded the enthusiastic audience with an encore by Bach. The program notes explained that Sibelius poured out all his talent on this one violin concerto.  He never wrote another.

The third piece, Shostakovich’s The Age of the Gold Suite, was written for ballet in the cruel years of Stalin’s long shadow over the arts. It is a piece that struggles with sounds that were trying to emerge, but were stifled by fear. There is a tension between the programmatic and the music that Shostakovich had to keep hidden from sight. This composition remains an uneven piece with lots of color and sound that would later emerge from Shostakovich in freer form.