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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Beethoven, Leonore Overture No. 2, Symphony No. 7; Lutoslawski, Symphony No. 4: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 16.05.2006 (HS)

The Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen has charmed Los Angeles audiences, winning them over with his sheer energy and passion for new music, including his own. He has also kept up the level of the orchestra's playing, which reached critical heights under Carlo Maria Giulini in the 1980s.

The orchestra has been paying annual visits to San Francisco for the past several years. In its two programs this week, Salonen programmed mostly Beethoven. I missed the first concert, which offered the Fifth and Eighth symphonies plus Eleven Gates, a new work by the Swedish composer Anders Hillborg that the orchestra premiered earlier this month in Los Angeles.

I heard the second night, which opened with the Leonore Overture No. 2 and closed with Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. On this program the encore, Stravinsky's bumptious Galop from Suite No. 2, had more to say in its raucous two minutes than anything Salonen did with the Beethoven. More critically, Salonen's way with Lutoslawski's Symphony No. 4 also completely overshadowed his efforts with Beethoven.

Maybe it's the lack of emphasis I felt so strongly as he led the Beethoven works. Leonore No. 2 skipped merrily along as if there were nothing portentous about it. All the notes were in place, with a sure rhythmic sense, but where was the drama? Where was the overarching sense of revolution? After all, this is the music of Fidelio.

In the Symphony No. 7, Salonen missed opportunity after opportunity to underline something, anything, a phrase, a note, a figure, to bring into focus the wonderful elements the composer lays out for us. He seemed more interested in finding the right gait for the music to lope along easily. The result was a pleasant performance with nothing special to distinguish it.

There was no sense of expectation in the opening pages. The dotted-eighth rhythms when the piece moves into 6/8 lacked that edge of sharpness that should propel the music irresistibly. The violins had a tendency to screech at times, but mostly the sounds were well mannered and lively, but not muscular.

In the second movement Allegretto, the violas and cellos laid down a good pulse, but the melody never soared against it. The Presto offered little contrast between its zippy parts and slow interludes. The finale, at least, had tremendous vitality and urgent rhythmic drive, even if the strings failed to articulate every note. Through it all Salonen seemed content to stay out of the way of the music, rather than guide it towards anything.

The story was totally different with the Lutoslawski symphony. Salonen seemed much more at home with this work, completed in 1992 and debuted by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the composer's baton in 1993. Salonen relished the composer's sleek melodic lines and arresting chordal textures. He played with tempo, hesitating here, pushing there, for strong effect.

The fleet phrases that interrupt an almost elegiac opening statement in the first movement gave special pleasure as they brightened the gloomy mood momentarily before skittering off. The lovely melody that plays against a fast-running accompaniment in the second and final movement blossomed like a flower under Salonen's urging and the orchestra's nuanced playing.

Salonen relished this intricate music, imbuing it with tremendous verve and expressiveness. He evoked an emotional response with waves of richly textured sound, and guided it to safe harbor at the end as it recedes charmingly to an almost contemplative finish.

Introducing the encore, the conductor joked about Los Angeles' reputed lack of culture. "To prove that we do (have culture), we would like to play one of the most profound pieces in the repertoire," he announced, turned and gave the downbeat for the Stravinsky Galop. After all the washed-out articulation in the Beethoven, this crackled with sparkling runs and turns, and sent the audience out into the foggy San Francisco night grinning.

Harvey Steiman

Editor’s note: An earlier performance of this concert, replacing the Beethoven Seventh with the Fifth, and recorded by DG in Los Angeles, is available for download from Apple’s iTunes. Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth coupled with the Hillborg will be released worldwide by DG and iTunes on 6 June.

See: DG Concerts and iTunes for further details HERE.




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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)