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Salonen, Out of Nowhere

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E.-P. Salonen, Violin Concerto / Nyx, L. Josefowicz, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, E.-P. Salonen
(Deutsche Grammophon, 2012)
Attentive readers will recall that my last pick for the Top 25 concerts of this season was the National Symphony Orchestra's program slated for the first weekend of June. Along with symphonies by Haydn and Schumann, Leila Josefowicz was going to give the world premiere of a new violin concerto by Sean Shepherd. About five months ago it became apparent that Shepherd was not going to finish this commission in time, and the new concerto was postponed, replaced by Esa-Pekka Salonen's relatively new violin concerto, as noted in my June concert picks. Josefowicz reportedly offered to play a few options from her repertory instead of the Shepherd piece, and Christoph Eschenbach and the NSO wisely chose Salonen's violin concerto, one of the best new pieces of recent years, heard at the Friday performance. A little bird tells me that the Shepherd concerto, when finally completed, will get an NSO performance, not next season obviously but soon thereafter.

At some point along the way Salonen's violin concerto has lost its subtitle, "Out of Nowhere," referring to the way that the solo part begins in media res. The constant stream of notes, accompanied by celesta, glockenspiel, and vibraphone, gives the impression of a pixie flitting about spraying fairy dust everywhere, with Josefowicz's harmonic notes somehow imitating the metallic sounds around her. A marvelous part for contrabass clarinet reinforces the entrance of the bass instruments on long notes (marked "stagger breath"), sounding like a tidal surge but given the first movement's title ("Mirage") may refer to the visual waves produced by extreme heat. The first inner movement ("Pulse I") is framed by sections of artificial harmonics in the solo part, showcasing Josefowicz's impeccable E string technique, through which she produced a perfectly tuned sound that could cut through any texture but never be harsh.

In both the pulse movements, playful rhythmic patterns became the focus, with the timpani in "Pulse I" pounding on the beat and then, through a sleight of hand, off the beat, for example. Wooden percussion and brass provided the impulse in "Pulse II," eliciting more wooden, hollow sounds from Josefowicz's tremolos. Salonen uses the orchestra for subtle, coloristic purposes for much of the piece until, at the end of the third movement, the ensemble goes on a wild rampage, with the solo shrieking along in crazy glissandi. ("Something very Californian about this," Salonen noted, laconically, in his composer's note.) The composer's affecting farewell to his former band, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is heard in the fourth movement ("Adieu"), with the most tender, introspective music of the concerto, including a rising scalar motif, almost like a jet slowly taking off from LAX. Salonen, for his part that "this is not a specific farewell to anything in particular," although later he admitted that "it is not a coincidence that the last movement is called 'Adieu'."

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, A maverick soloist offers a classic new work (Washington Post, June 3)
Eschenbach, who was laser-focused while conducting the Salonen, returned to his over-expressive gestural mode in both of the more familiar symphonies. Schumann's fourth symphony had a welcome return, not played by the NSO since 2003. (The program notes, for some reason, were on the topic of the second symphony.) The differentiation of sound through attention to balances seemed to show careful reflection, but Eschenbach could not seem to settle on one tempo, shifting the speed in different sections of the first movement, for example. Schumann's heavier re-orchestration, in the revised version of the symphony played here, gives a lugubrious quality to the slow introductions of first and last movements. The composer still made missteps, like giving the slow movement's main theme to the solo cello and oboe together, a combination that is not easy to keep in tune, although Nurit Bar-Josef was in excellent form in the solo triplets of the B section. The famous scherzo was the high point, set at just the right tempo and beautifully shaped, with some oozing rubato in the trio section, while the warlike finale, with its martial dotted rhythms, was heroic.

Sadly, Haydn's Symphony No. 104, the last of the series of twelve for the London visit, where he was when he composed it, seemed like an afterthought at the start of the concert. Eschenbach took the greatest number of liberties, often seeming to work against the score's best interests, stretching out the slow introduction of the first movement and then pushing the fast section to the edge, not seeming to have convinced the musicians of what he wanted to do. The second movement felt over-mannered, every articulation exaggerated but without the necessary precision in attacks or in the ends of sounds. The trio of the third movement had the best results, with a relaxed tempo and approach to dynamics producing an elegant sound, while the finale was spirited but not really witty.

This concert repeats this evening, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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