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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Two More Sides of Christoph Eschenbach by Bernard Jacobson

Penderecki, Mozart, and Beethoven Díaz Trio, Christoph Eschenbach; Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 16 March 2005

Ravel, Sierra, and Salonen
Andrés Cardenes, Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach; Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, 17 March 2005

It is dangerous to be too many-sided as a musician. Leonard Bernstein’s versatility often led to charges that he was a jack-of-all trades and master of none, and even without the element of composition entering into the mix, Daniel Barenboim has routinely been accused of spreading himself too thin. Dangerously or not, Christoph Eschenbach showed something of his own Protean potential to Philadelphia audiences in the middle week of March, and the result was at once stimulating and wonderfully satisfying. Just one day after the final performance of a Philadelphia Orchestra program that showed him a skillful conductor of the 19th-century romantic nationalists, he turned again to what was his original role as pianist, joining the Díaz Trio in Mozart’s G–minor Piano Quartet; and the next day again, he was back on the podium as a compelling advocate for new music.

Mozart was one of Eschenbach’s first loves in his pianistic prime – he recorded a complete set of the sonatas in the late 1960s, and made some memorable recordings of the composer’s piano-duet music with Justus Frantz a few years later. Now, tackling one of Mozart’s greatest chamber works, Eschenbach showed that a busy conducting career has in no way damaged his keyboard skills. He gave us playing of the utmost fluency and the most pellucid tonal beauty, while meshing expertly with his string-trio partners. The Díaz Trio consists of violinist Andrés Cardenes (concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra since 1989), Roberto Díaz (the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal violist), and Roberto’s brother, cellist Andrés Díaz. Considering the limitations their separate orchestral careers must impose on their rehearsal time, they must be commended for the remarkable cohesion they manifest as a group. And facing the very different challenges posed by the first and last works on the program, Penderecki’s crisply gritty String Trio and Beethoven’s engaging Opus 9 No. 1, they also demonstrated first-rate individual skills as instrumentalists: Cardenes combines sweet tone with a rare accuracy of intonation, and the Díaz brothers match him well with their own rich sonorities and masterful techniques.

The Philadelphia Orchestra program the following night was a vintage Eschenbach creation, framing two new works between Ravel’s Mother Goose suite and the second suite from his Daphnis and Chloé. Jointly commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra for, respectively, their concertmaster and principal violist, the 51-year-old Puerto-Rican-born Roberto Sierra’s Concerto for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra was presumably not one of Eschenbach’s own choices, since it was composed in 2003, before he took over as music director, and must have been commissioned some time before that; the world premiere, conducted by David Zinman, took place in Pittsburgh in 2003, and the work was now receiving its first Philadelphia performance.

In a charmingly brief introduction from the stage, Sierra drew attention to the strongly Latin character of his piece. The concerto is indeed redolent of his gift for vivid orchestral coloring and his preoccupation with rhythm, which he once named as one of his “main concerns” as a composer. It is skillfully written also for the soloists, and has moments of considerable attractiveness. In the end, however, I found the music curiously lacking in specific character. Perhaps in this case brevity worked against success: within an overall duration of not much more than 21 minutes, each of the four movements seemed to be over before it could make much of a substantive statement or even establish a particularly individual atmosphere.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Insomnia, which followed after intermission, was a very different matter. The 46-year-old Finn, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1992, is more widely known as a conductor than as a composer–he is also a more than ordinarily capable horn-player–and that again could be reckoned a dangerous combination of professions. But this was a work that showed him to be, unlike some highly celebrated conductor-composers, quite extraordinarily focused and individual in his own musical invention. We have heard a number of new works in Verizon Hall since it opened at the end of 2001, some of them impressive, others less so; but I make bold to assert that Insomnia easily outshone even the best of them.

Composed in 2002 (and already available on a Deutsche Grammophon disc in a performance by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra), and playing for around 24 minutes, it is a variation-form meditation on what the composer describes as “the demonic, dark aspects of the night: the kind of persistent, compulsive thoughts that run through our mind when lying hopelessly awake in the early hours.” If that formulation suggests something unpleasant, even nightmarish, the reality on the other hand was a musical experience of the utmost exhilaration. Scored for a large orchestra in which the four horns are supplemented by a quartet of Wagner tubas, dominated at times by a timpani part of crucial importance (played with riveting intensity on this occasion by Don Liuzzi) and by contributions from a varied percussion section, the work is loud and fast for much of its duration; yet it triumphantly avoids the sense of aural overload that other such essays have inflicted on the listener, and its speed of motion never precludes clarity of thought within a musical idiom that stretches tonality without breaking it and ranges widely between enormous contrapuntal complexity, sheer motoric impulse, and a constantly fascinating interplay of rhythmic shapes.

Readers who cannot claim (or perhaps I should say “confess to”) personal acquaintance with a seasoned music critic may not realize that beatific smiles are not what one commonly observes on the face of such a personage when he is seated at a concert. But smiles of pure delight were indeed what Salonen’s unflagging vitality of imagination and brilliance of execution–abetted by the superb skill and commitment Eschenbach and his orchestra brought to their task–repeatedly elicited from this critic. I have enjoyed some of Salonen’s works in the past, but had not realized till now that he must be ranked as not merely a competent but a decidedly major composer. Among single-movement orchestral pieces written in the past few decades, only a small handful by the English composer Harrison Birtwistle and the German-born Hans Werner Henze come to mind as rivaling this one in quality and importance. Insomnia is a masterpiece.

Bernard Jacobson

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)