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Otherworldly Sibelius at Alice Tully Hall

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Wed Sep 6th, 2017

Esa-Pekka Salonen, center; Essi Höglund, left; Siri Nironen, right

Although Esa-Pekka Salonen became conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1984, he was not on my myopic East Coast radar until I purchased a 1992 Sony recording of Jean Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Legends, a recording I fell in love with. Today Salonen is one of the most-recorded conductors in the world. In a program similar to Bard’s TON Orchestra program noted guest conductors are brought in to conduct Juilliard School students, yet about half of the players on stage were members of the Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra. The had come to Manhattan to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Finnish nationalism in which Sibelius had played a pivotal role.

They opened with recently deceased Steven Stucky’s “Radical Light” (2007), Sibelius. Stucky attempted to conjure an otherworldly effect through high-pitched tones, but I was more aware of the attempt than an achievement. Some of this was pleasant, yet to me some of it was too shrill for my taste. I would have preferred more emphasis on the harp than xylophone. As an ice-breaker, it was thought-provoking.

Jonathan Roozeman was the guest cellist for Salonen’s cello concerto, Mania (2000). Mania is a work of metamorphosis where themes and tempos contain dynamic, evolving contrasts, and mysterious processes of transformation. Finnish-Dutch cellist Roozeman, who plays a 1707 David Tecchler (on loan from the Finnish Cultural Foundation), performed this difficult work with intense empathy. There was a dialog with the first violin as well as the orchestra. The cello solos offered arresting dissonances with gripping harmonic tension. This was much more to my taste and I would like to hear it again. The audience demanded three bows and Roozeman responded by playing a marvelous work by Gaspar Cassadó: Solo Suite, 3rd movement, Intermezzo e danza finale. Barcelona-born Cassadó was a student of Pablo Casals and a prolific composer of cello works.

Roozeman had a new distinctive voice which was exciting, yet it was the Lemminkäinen Legends I had come to hear. Those sections of the Kalevala, on which the music program is based delight in the humor of gigantisms akin to the medieval Irish epic the Tain (The Raid) or the writings of the good priest Francois Rabelais. What is most unusual about the four-movement Lemminkäinen Legends is the other-worldly atmosphere, something difficult to describe in words. For me this was a composition on which I hung at the edge of my seat, marveling at each bend of a majestic landscape. The Don Juan program character seduces not only the plot’s army of maidens but the whole audience as well. And yet the narrative sails on well beyond its seductive ambiance into the light of ethereal wisdom. That sense of otherworldly habitation remains soul-transforming amid the metamorphic quality of the rhythms and tunes that so influenced Salonen’s own compositions.

As a conductor, Salonen is vigorous, inspiring, appearing to meld into the music, inhabiting the music. The orchestra played with admirable energy and intensity. Concertmaster violinist Essi Höglund was especially impressive with tone and energy while Principal cellist Siri Nironen and his fellow cellists effectively aided in grounding the resonant lower register.

For encore, after three bows from an audience on its feet, Salonen offered Valse Triste by Sibelius. The original 1903 version did not survive, but Sibelius reworked it in 1906, and it was posthumously published in 1973. This is the last waltz—it ends in sudden hiatus that produces lingering pathos for a genre outmoded. It is an elegy for the genre and a most effective way to disperse an overly-excited audience.

In February 2018 the Los Angeles Philharmonic will perform all of Salonen’s concertos with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Leila Josefowicz, and pianist Yefim Bronfman, those musicians for whom Salonen wrote these concertos. A short interview video with Salonen appears below.