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Review: Esa-Pekka Salonen premieres his Violin Concerto

April 10, 2009 |  1:01 pm

 Leila                                                                               

Esa-Pekka Salonen ended a Green Umbrella program Tuesday with a performance of “Floof,” a small Modernist work he wrote 20 years ago for soprano and five instruments. It is a humorous score. The singer represents a sputtering computer trying to learn language and create poetry. But it is also music foretelling a compositional crisis. A young man is searching for his voice and doesn’t entirely know where to go.

Thursday night in Walt Disney Concert Hall, Salonen premiered his Violin Concerto, and it is pure, euphoric poetry with a singular sound and voice.

He writes in his notes that the score is a portrait of his young soloist, Leila Josefowicz, who gave an astonishingly virtuosic and visceral performance from memory. He also calls the work a private narrative, a summary of his experiences as a musician and human being at “the watershed age of 50."

Salonen takes further pains to say that the concerto is not a specific farewell to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, even though he will conduct his last concert as its music director with a Stravinsky program next week. The concerto, after all, was originally to have been premiered by the Chicago Symphony in January but wasn’t finished in time.

In fact, this is Los Angeles Philharmonic music through and through. It was commissioned by the orchestra and underwritten by loyal patrons (Dr. and Mrs. Armin M. Sadoff). Salonen finished the orchestral parts only two weeks ago, and in every luminous bar you can hear something specific to this orchestra and the extraordinary hall in which it plays. The concerto ends with a rhapsodic slow movement titled “Adieu.”

This is surely the most personal music Salonen has written and the latest and most eloquent evidence yet that that young composer of 20 years ago has found his language. It is the end point of his 17-year journey with the orchestra that, among other things, helped him find his voice. 

The concerto lasts 31 minutes and is in four unusual movements. The first is called “Mirage.” The fluid violin solos have enough scale passages and arpeggios to make Philip Glass happy, something that would have horrified a young Salonen and may well still horrify some of his European colleagues. 

The soloist saws away, but the orchestral texture is exceptionally sparse at first – a single chord in the celesta, a note on the harp, a ping of percussion. Josefowicz is a force of nature who gradually sweeps up the orchestra along with her. Winds and percussion amplify her brilliant lines. The strings do sometimes as well, but more often back her up with glowing chords.

The interplay is dynamic, but it is also sonic. Salonen knows exactly what rings and how in the hall.  Harmony is his concern in this movement, and his chords are recognizably his, but they are also, at least to mind, the signature of the hall. The job for future musicologists will be to find period instruments and acoustics to reproduce these sounds when played in other environments.

The two middle movements — “Pulse I” and “Pulse II” – are, obviously, rhythm-centric. In the first, slightly different pulses from the timpani and the solo violin interact. Salonen described the mood in the Upbeat Live preview as that of two lovers quietly in bed.  They can hear their hearts beat. Strings shimmer.

“Pulse II” is loud, fast, complex and raucous. Salonen has, for the first time, added a drum kit to his percussion arsenal. Josefowicz shimmied and gave the orchestra sass. The writing here is extraordinarily difficult, and she was on fire.

Finally, “Adieu” — a slow, extended adagio — is time for melody. There is a big climax, but most of the time the orchestra is in the background and the violin sings. Traces of John Adams’ wandering long lines can be found in her irregularly unfolding tunes. Mahler’s last movement adagios also come to my mind where the music is far too inventive to ever become maudlin.

Salonen ends with a chord that seems not to belong, and Salonen says in the notes that for some time he didn’t know why. He now understands that it represents the beginning of something new. I thought it fit fine. It was a friendly wave goodbye and a smile.

The more Josefowicz turns to modern music — as she as done in recent years with John Adams and Oliver Knussen — the more a phenomenon she seems with each new piece. She’s only had Salonen's score a short time, and solo transitions between two movements were added just the other day. Yet she has mastered and internalized an all but unplayable part. If I hadn’t heard it, I wouldn’t have believed it.

The concert began with György Ligeti’s “Clocks and Clouds.” A dozen women’s voices replace the violins in this odd gem from 1973. Pulses become irregular and turn into fog. Your ear is surprised by which bits gel and which bits don’t. Ligeti was teaching at Stanford at the time, and Terry Riley was inventing Minimalism in the Bay Area. This piece knows that. 

Salonen ended with Beethoven’s Fifth. Here was power, clarity, extraordinary momentum and a vitality that made one of the most familiar symphonies ever written sound like it was the product of a Ligeti contemporary, maybe even by a composer with whom Salonen has studied. It ended in an unstoppable rush of optimism.

Salonen is going out with a bang. Big time.

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Saturday. $42 to $147. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

— Mark Swed

Photo: Violinist Leila Josefowicz premieres Esa-Pekka Salonen's Violin Concerto on Thursday at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu/ For The Times.

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