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
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
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.
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