Esa-Pekka Salonen and Leila Josefowicz in Salonen’s Violin Concerto, with Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin and Stravinsky’s Complete Firebird

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Leila Josefowicz

Leila Josefowicz

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Friday, April 13, 2012, 7.00 pm
Symphony Hall

Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Leila Josefowicz, violin

Ravel ‑ Le Tombeau de Couperin
Salonen  ‑ Violin Concerto
Stravinsky ‑ The Firebird (Complete)

This concert was without a doubt one of the great events of the season, whether in Boston or New York, and certainly a high point in the BSO’s unexpectedly patchy year, at least as far as guest conductors were concerned, which seemed almost miraculous on paper, given the short notice allowed by James Levine’s final health setback, but in practice greatly curtailed by the cancellation of some the most distinguished conductors. Riccardo Chailly’s coronary ailment forced him to cancel his two concerts and effectively put him out of the running for the empty music directorship. Andris Nelsons rather strangely decided to go on paternal leave barely more than a month before his scheduled concert. Ill-health made it necessary for Kurt Masur, one of the great interpreters of the Missa Solemnis, to back out of his engagement while already in rehearsal. It was, to say the least, reassuring to find Esa-Pekka Salonen appearing  as scheduled with violinist Leila Josefowicz in an advanced stage of expectancy, much to the delight of her many fans in the audience.

The concert was nothing less than a revelation—not a sudden, unexpected epiphany, but a systematically planned program which led the audience to the final, great revelation, Salonen’s reading of Stravinsky’s early masterpiece, The Firebird. (Musical revelations seem to belong very much in the Russian world this season, with the Met’s production of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina ranking as one of its other great events.) In this program, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin led us into the richly creative musical world of Paris in early twentieth century, of which Stravinsky was a vital part. While Salonen’s own violin concerto belongs characteristically to the international musical life of the present day, in which Los Angeles is, perhaps intermittently, a significant center, or was, during Salonen’s seventeen years as music director of the LA Philharmonic. Of course, Stravinsky lived there for many years, and, interestingly, Mr. Salonen once came close to buying his house there. The affinity between the two composers was not hard to find in Salonen’s Violin Concerto, above all in its orchestral palette and structure. Above all, it gave the audience a chance to get to know Salonen as a composer, and, since the concert I attended was part of the BSO’s Underscore Friday program, which included explanatory talks by a member of the orchestra (in this case, the personable and articulate first trumpet, Thomas Rolfs) and the conductor, we got to know Salonen the composer rather well through his valuable, rather personal, presentation of the concerto. This was crucial, since his astonishing performance of The Firebird was the sort of performance only a composer can produce.

The Boston Symphony, quite amazingly for an orchestra which has played without a music director for an entire year, was in splendid form throughout. They clearly enjoyed playing for Salonen very much. Their excellent rapport was immediately apparent in the Tombeau de Couperin, in which Ravel called for relatively small forces of a light texture, one not much different from the scoring of a late Mozart symphony, but not approaching period flavor to the extent of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. Instead of overt antiquarianism in the imitation of Baroque sounds or literal quotation from Couperin, Ravel opted for a general, almost vague, evocation of “ancient music,” rather in the spirit of Respighi and Richard Strauss. The lingering nostalgia of this treatment is delicately sympathetic to Ravel’s memorial purposes, not only the long-dead Couperin, but  his recently departed friends, who were killed in the Great War. (Here is yet another work that could have fit into the Portland Symphony program, “Music for a Time of War,” recently discussed in these pages.) Ravel’s suite, however nostalgic for the music of an earlier time, is first and foremost a contemporary work, reflecting the “second sailing” of the tombeau as a poetic genre in Mallarmé’s brilliant return to it a generation earlier. In any case, the BSO manifested Ravel’s light textures with vivid color, virtuosic solo playing, and rich body one doesn’t always hear in Le Tombeau. The principals, Elizabeth Rowe, flute, John Ferrillo, oboe, Craig Nordstrom, English Horn, and James Sommerville, horn, produced the most elegant and beautiful playing one could imagine. Salonen led them without a baton, inspiring a certain degree of informality, which did not  quite go as far as the désinvolture of a chamber orchestra, even with a conductor. Both the composer and this particular work seemed especially sympathetic to Salonen the musician and, as we were to discover, Salonen the composer.

Leila Josefowicz and Esa-Pekka Salonen in his Violin Concerto. Photo Stu Rosner.

Leila Josefowicz and Esa-Pekka Salonen in his Violin Concerto. Photo Stu Rosner.

Salonen’s Violin Concerto, composed mostly in 2008, his last year as Music Director of the LA Philharmonic, also contains a certain strain of nostalgia, especially its last movement, which is called “Adieu.” As he mentioned in his talk, this final year with the orchestra was somewhat emotional, and he described the piece as exceptionally emotional in the context of his oeuvre. Even his energetic, percussion-rich third movement originated in a memory from his student days. There is also a hint of mortality in the work, as the steady timpani rhythm in the second movement refers to the coronary arrhythmy, which, as he said, “was not about to kill him tomorrow,” but which has given his concern through much of his life. There is nothing of Mahler’s agonizing in this or Berg’s morbidity or Schoenberg’s visceral suffering in this music—he is not that sick a man, and he seems psychologically very much a positive character, but all parts of the work possess a core of gravity shared by all who have experienced chronic health concerns. In fact, it is a rather dark work. It is full of movement, restless, anxious movement, which constantly seeks some form of rest in nostalgia, but finds only depression or more anxiety in it. Its more energetic passages are aggressive, even threatening, never joyful or celebratory. In an interview, Salonen stated that, in the final movement, “Adieu,” the music arrives at a realization of the future, and that he finds a release in this. And when that finally happens, it is really quite moving.

In his talk he spoke more than once of “zooming in” on the violin…even down to the molecular level—an attitude and a method of composing essentially different from the concepts of solo instrument and orchestra shared by nineteenth and twentieth century composers. The cinematic metaphor describes Salonen’s approach well. With Leila Josefowicz’s brilliant collaboration, in both the composing and the playing, he focused on specific figurations and sounds traditionally developed for the violin and explored them in combination with sections of his large orchestra, which occasionally mimicked timbres peculiar to the violin. These moments went far beyond mere effect and conveyed moods essential to the narrative of the concerto. I hardly need mention that the auditory and emotional projection of these passages demanded extraordinary ensemble playing, which the orchestra delivered with breathtaking control and nuance. Josefowicz’s playing was impressive in its virtuosity, but never showy or inclined to stray from the thread of the music and its meaning. Her playing of the elaborate figurations in the first movement was austere in tone and emphasized precise articulation. Only in the latter part of the concluding slow movement, did she let her Guarneri sing with the rich, lustrous tone composers and violinists so amply exploited in the classic repertory. More often than not, violin concerti will transport the audience from Symphony Hall to Vienna or St. Petersburg; this one most definitely inhabited Los Angeles, although with scarcely a trace of the city’s indelible grittiness. Ironically, the closest intimation of that, complete with drum kit, was derived from that memory from Salonen’s student days in Siena. If you are curious about the seamy details, the talk can be heard on the WGBH website.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto is a work in which narrative, pure sound in all its aspects, events of a harmonic nature, and melody work together as equals in creating an experience of considerable technical and psychological complexity. On my first listening, I was more disoriented than usual by the absence of the classical argument one finds in traditional concerti, but I happened to hear it again on the radio as I was driving back to Williamstown two days later, and that was welcome. I’m looking forward to a third hearing, which must speak well for the piece. With a new composition one hasn’t heard before, it’s best to take it as it comes, without expectations.

Léon Bakst, Design for The Firebird

Hearing Esa-Pekka Salonen as a composer conducting his own music was ideal preparation for the complete version of Stravinsky’s ballet, The Firebird, for it was the kind of performance only a composer could give. Behind the magnificent playing of all parts of Stravinsky’s spectacular score, with Salonen’s guidance, the musicians of the BSO delved into every nook and byway of Stravinsky’s vast palette of tone colors, but not as an orchestral showpiece. Salonen the composer hears instrumental sound as meaning rather than as pure color. On top of this, Stravinsky’s The Firebird, as a ballet, is the quintessence of musical narrative, and very much after the model of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherezade (a tone poem, not a ballet), in which individual instruments embody actual characters in the story. Salonen’s introduction of a narrative structure into his four-movement violin concerto would suggest that The Firebird is a work entirely after his own heart. Each narraative unit—that is, each dance—has its own coloristic signature. Indeed, in his grasp of orchestral color, instrumental timbre, and pacing, Salonen proved to be the perfect conduit for Stravinsky’s invention. From bar to bar, I have never heard so riveting a performance of the work—not that I have heard the complete ballet many times.

At the time he received the commission from Diaghelev for The Firebird in 1909, the twenty-seven-year-old Stravinsky was still living in Russia. He was still barely out from under the wings of his beloved teacher, who had died only the year before, and he had not yet developed any of the cosmopolitanism that was to expand his work after his arrival in Paris. It is significant that he began the piece while living in Rimsky-Korsakov’s country house outside St. Petersburg. As one immerses oneself in the music, especially in such a deeply comprehending and complete performance as this, it is amazing how close to the spirit of Sheherezade it remains, while showing the freshness of a new generation so vividly that it seems more iconoclastic than it actually is. There is almost something a bit naughty, but not quite disrespectful, in Stravinsky’s renewal of his nineteenth-century Russian heritage. One can understand the work all the better by considering it in the context of Russian late Romanticism rather than as a less-perfect predecessor to Le Sacre du Printemps.

I imagine we owe the engrossing power of this performance above all to Salonen’s vivid idea of the narrative and his masterful control of dynamics and pacing from scene to scene. This was all greatly aided by the magnificent playing of the orchestra as an ensemble, as well as in the work of the soloists. The sense of progression, suspense and building-up in Scene II was awe-inspiring, leaving us entirely spellbound by the voluminous sounds of the brass chords at the end.

Far from wandering astray without a music director, the players of the BSO seem to be making the most of it. They were at their best, and on this occasion they had a most sympathetic leader.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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