Ma Mère l’oye – Suite
Violin Concerto [New York concert premiere]
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82
Leila Josefowicz (violin)
New York Philharmonic
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 30 October, 2013
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
The centerpiece of this program was Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto (2009), with the composer conducting the New York Philharmonic and Leila Josefowicz, for whom the concerto was written. The same artists gave the world premiere with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009, and also performed the work across Lincoln Center’s plaza at the New York City Ballet’s 2010 premiere of Mirage, Peter Martins’s ballet set to its score.
Salonen began with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, which was a showpiece for the Philharmonic’s winds. Duets by a pair of flutes and then by clarinet and English horn stood out in the ‘Pavane’, after which ‘Petit Poucet’ began with muted strings accompanying a series of solos by oboe, cor anglais, clarinet and flute, and later the flutes and solo violin emulated birdsong over a bassoon solo. After the tenderness of this music, colors exploded in ‘Laideronnette’, with tripping solos for flute and oboe taken up by the entire woodwind section along with chattering xylophone, celesta and harp and percussion accents. Even the contrabassoon had its turn in the spotlight in ‘Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête’, as Arlen Fast intoned the gruff voice of the Beast on the enhanced instrument he designed (and which is rapidly coming into use in orchestras around the world), contrasting with Stephen Williamson’s clarinet depicting Beauty and Glenn Dicterow’s violin solo as the Beast turns back into a handsome prince. Finally, in ‘Le Jardin féerique’, Salonen again evoked the gentle aura with which the Suite had begun, with the strings in the forefront, including a sensuous duet by Dicterow and principal viola Cynthia Phelps, creating the lush landscape of the fairy garden. Celesta, harp, and glockenspiel added brilliant coloration as the music built to its glorious climax.
Salonen’s Violin Concerto puts the solo instrument through incredible paces, making extensive use of harmonics, trills, slides, and a variety of bowing techniques – “pushing the envelope” as the composer has characterized his aim. The work runs an emotional gamut, ranging from lyrical, gentle and playful to rough, harsh and serious, but it is consistently engaging. Josefowicz seems to have absorbed the concerto into her very being, rattling off her difficult part with dazzling technique and spirit. Salonen’s precise directions kept the Philharmonic in sync and in balance with Josefowicz whose playing was powerful enough to hold its own against even the loudest passages.
The music begins with the unaccompanied violin playing an appealing tune at blazing speed, the orchestra joining it moments later but having relatively little to say for a time. Although it seemed impossible for Josefowicz to maintain the pace of these pyrotechnics, she did so indefatigably through most of the movement, ‘Mirage’, with only a few slower interludes. The middle movements are called ‘Pulse I’ and ‘Pulse II’, but their heart-rates are radically different. In the former, the timpani’s soft ostinato sets a slow pace for the sweetly singing violin, but in the latter, the now-raucous violin converses with brass and percussion that includes a rock-band drum kit. The movement ends in a wild duet between soloist and drummer that felt unsatisfying and out of place.
The finale, aptly named ‘Adieu’, continues the alternation of fast and slow music, with Josefowicz’s playing introspective, and her instrument projecting an extraordinarily beautiful tone, and begins with an extended, languid solo that becomes a melancholy duet with cor anglais before larger forces enter the scene. Violin scales, into the stratosphere, are echoed in the orchestra until a flourish by the bass drum heralds a dense tutti. The violin keeps returning to the opening dark music, joined first by solo oboe and flute, with highlights added by piccolo and celesta, and later by brightly blaring trumpets and trombones which soon return muted and in low registers to accompany the violin. A dramatic downward slide on the violin ushers in an even deeper exploration of the violin melody, ending on a soft note that fades away without producing a sense of harmonic resolution. Salonen’s Violin Concerto was enthusiastically received. Soloist and composer-conductor have recorded this work with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra on DG 479 0628.
After intermission, Salonen led a radiant performance of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, demonstrating a thorough understanding of its idiom and its distinctive characteristics. The Symphony is remarkable in many respects, including its unusual structure in which a scherzo, complete with trio, grows out of the opening movement, and the finale is dominated by a recurring motto foreshadowed by harmonies from the slow middle movement. Sibelius’s orchestration is also often unconventional, beginning with setting the opening bars for timpani and horns alone and giving the violins and violas nothing more to play than tremolos until an extended woodwind episode has run its course. The quartet of horns remains prominent throughout the work, and timpani flams are used repeatedly to signal significant moments.
In the first movement, surging strings and woodwinds were redolent of the wonders of nature, and then an eerie atmosphere was colored by Judith LeClair’s fine bassoon solos. Horns and brass generated a dense, rich sound, with trumpets brightly heralding a quickening dance-like tempo that served as a scherzo, with duets of solo trumpet and timpani and then two horns as its trio. The Presto ending was quite thrilling, as violins and winds played rising and falling figures with brass chords recalling the movement’s initial harmonies. Salonen began the middle movement genially, without letting the pace drag as flutes and pizzicato strings chirped away. A falling melody on the violins provided warm interludes, and grace-note-introduced chords on the horns gave a feeling of almost comic relief. The movement seemed to tiptoe toward the finish with a wind choir softly bringing it to an anticlimactic ending. The finale was dominated by the thrilling motto that emerges irrepressibly from the buzzing of muted strings and chattering winds, heard at first on horns, later on trumpets, and finally on both trumpets and trombones before the astonishing coda, in which Salonen sustained incredible tension during the silences between the six final fff strokes.