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S & H International Concert Review

Mussorgsky, Salonen, Prokofiev, Bartok: San Francisco Symphony, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor; Yefim Bronfman, piano. Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, April 2, 2004 (HS)


Esa-Pekka Salonen has been conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 12 seasons, but these concerts mark the first occasion for San Francisco audiences to experience what all the excitement in L.A. has been about. Salonen's debut in front of the San Francisco Symphony this week is actually the second half of a conductor swap that saw Michael Tilson Thomas, at the helm in San Francisco for 10 years now, leading Salonen's orchestra for the first time last fall in what by all accounts was a series of memorable performances of Mahler's Symphony No. 6.

Salonen built a thoughtful and highly personal program around his own 2002 composition, Insomnia. The 22-minute work is a modern take on night music, hardly the gentle nocturnes of Chopin. As the name suggests, the music explores the psychological waves, frights and disturbances that keep one from sleeping. The theme and variations form reflects perfectly the way recurring versions of the same thoughts can keep one from getting a night's rest.

The highly programmatic piece begins with a chord sequence enunciated by the woodwinds, each phrase tied to the next with a quick flash of melody -- a nice touch, just as if the lull of near-sleep were being interrupted by thoughts. These chords are the basis of the variations that follow, including several major interruptions of what Salonen calls "machine music." These sequences remind me of what Minimalist composers are so good at -- creating a highly rhythmic pattern and altering it subtly and repeatedly until it ends up being something completely different.

But Salonen is no Minimalist. His musical palette is complex, polyphonic, multi-rhythmic, and in this piece the assaults keep coming. The musical language can have a hard edge but mostly it's harmonically rich and devilishly unpredictable. Each variation has its own set of psychological demons to explore and overcome until, finally, with thick, generous chords in the low brass and woodwinds, a sense of repose is reached -- just in time for a blaze of dawn and the unmistakable jangling of an alarm clock to bring a fast end to the poor insomniac's sleep.

Salonen's highly intelligent program choices all point to various aspects of his own piece. Like Insomnia, Mussorgsky's A Night on Bald Mountain, which opened the program, and Bartok's Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, which closed it, tell stories that take place at night. The Mussorgsky piece deals directly with a tale of witches and demons, the Bartok with a ballet depicting its title character, the victim of a sexual set-up, dancing about and completing the sex act despite being hanged. Lurid stuff, that.

The other piece on the agenda was Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 1, unusually for a sole solo work placed after intermission (with Insomnia preceding the break). The piece's extensive use of ostinato (repeated rhythmic phrases) echoes Salonen's "machine music," which added more impact to the entire program. Impact, actually, is the overriding theme. Each of these pieces is boisterous, loud and colorful.

Pianist Yefim Bronfman has the technique to bestride Prokofiev's big, broad moments and the musical subtlety to bring a real sense of shape to them. His playing and Salonen's energetic conducting made the concerto something special.

Mussorgsky's original orchestration of A Night on Bald Mountain is darker, more bass-heavy than the more familiar version re-orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov (another parallel with Salonen, who favors low brass and strings in his orchestration for Insomnia). The first piece on the concert revealed a high level of communication between Salonen, whose almost acrobatic baton technique isn't at all like Tilson Thomas'. If there were a quibble, it would be that Salonen couldn't tease more clarity out of Mussorgsky's dense orchestration here.

He got it in the Bartok, however, which gleamed and glittered in all its polychromatic glory. Luis Baez delivered a properly debauched series of clarinet solos and the whole percussion section distinguished itself in seasoning the rhythms with more color of their own. One can sense in The Miraculous Mandarin more than a little of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which preceded Bartok's composition by only a few years. The tonal language is often harsh, but Salonen got some whacky humor out of the score before ratcheting up the dramatic intensity to breathtaking levels.

Harvey Steiman

 

 

 


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