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Esa-Pekka Salonen returns to Walt Disney Concert Hall

November 20, 2010 |  3:56 pm

Salonen 
Esa-Pekka Salonen received a whistling, whooping, foot-stamping ovation when he walked onstage at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday night. So what else is new?

His hair is now short, but little else has changed since his last appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic a year and a half ago, when he was extravagantly cheered for his 17 seasons as music director, which had come to an end.

Holding a microphone, he told the Friday audience that he had looked forward to seeing his friends in the orchestra and once more playing in the hall, but that he didn’t expect the experience to feel quite so comfortable, like wearing old slippers. “And not just any old slippers,” he elaborated, “but sushi-grade slippers.”

Then he picked up precisely where he had left off. That program in April 2009 contained moving performances of Stravinsky's  opera/oratorio “Oedipus Rex” and “Symphony of Psalms,” both of which have Latin texts. This time Salonen, now conductor laureate, began with the U.S. premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s “Graffiti,” which once again featured the Los Angeles Master Chorale and used Latin texts. Bartók’s disturbing opera, “Bluebeard’s Castle,” followed in the second half.

In the program notes, Lindberg mentioned “Oedipus” and “Symphony of Psalms” as inspiration, but he went in a more contemporary direction. Instead of selecting a dead language as a distancing device as Stravinsky had, the Finnish composer chose graffiti from ancient Pompeii that wouldn’t be out of place scribbled on the walls of a grubby Grand Central Station men’s room, as Salonen put it in introducing the work to the Disney audience. “Nothing has changed,” he said. “We have a human need to broadcast our existence.”

“Graffiti,” which was written last year, is big, lasting 34 minutes and utilizing a large orchestra and chamber chorus. The texts, which were translated into colloquial English on the projected titles, startle. Some are of the “Gilroy is here” variety. Some are mean (“You are dead; you are nothing”). Some are snotty. Some are sexual boasts in language still not suitable for U.S. newspapers.

Lindberg this time is a little less daring with his musical language than with his English translations. “Graffiti” is immediately accessible. Vivid instrumental colors bring back the equivalent visual wonders that were in the “Pompeii” show at LACMA last year.

Hints of “Carmina Burana” are perhaps inevitable when vulgar Latin is chanted. Lindberg gets away with treating profane passages to delightfully light and charming music. And the composer even added a touch of Hollywood. The orchestration list doesn't include organ. But near the end, Joanne Pearce Martin moved from piano to organ console  and a let a low one rip. This was a Disney special the composer added for this performance. You’ve got to love Lindberg for that.

The playing was joyfully intricate, with instrumental textures so immediate they could almost be touched. Lindberg’s music is second nature to Salonen, and the L.A. Philharmonic hasn’t forgotten its way around this sometimes flamboyant Finn either.

“Graffiti” ends with a touching line, “Lantern-man, hold the ladder,” set to touching music that sounds almost like a remembrance from the opening music of “Bluebeard’s Castle.” And Bartók’s opera begins with a spoken prologue asking where shall an old tune be hid and what does it mean.

This is a mysterious story for two singers (and optional actor to recite the prologue) set to appropriately but magnificently mysterious music. Bluebeard leads Judith, wife No. 4, into his grand, gloomy castle. He is cold and severe. She is timorous but easily titillated.

“Don’t hurt me,” she pleads as she begs him to hurt her, to open seven locked doors. Each leads to a place of pain, beginning with a torture chamber. The last door reveals the room where Bluebeard’s past wives reside in suspended animation. Judith is ushered in to complete the collection.

Salonen invited two of his favorite singers, Anne Sofie von Otter and Willard White, as dramatically compelling soloists. In an unusually revisionist interpretation, the Swedish mezzo-soprano remained the implacable one this time, sleuth and accuser (if more Ingmar Bergman than Stieg Larsson). It was the imposing Jamaican bass-baritone who gradually lost his ferocious defenses.

The great glory of “Bluebeard,” though, is Bartók’s overpowering instrumental score. So descriptive is the orchestra of the blood-drenched castle's alluring horrors that the opera hardly requires staging. Brian Gale added some helpful and exciting lighting effects. Unfortunately, the actress CCH Pounder didn’t choose stateliness as the manner in which to read the prologue.

But the performance was mainly a Salonen special. He added the suavity and the radiance.

For Salonen, this “Bluebeard” begins a year of big Bartók projects including "Bluebeard" with the New York Philharmonic and, in London, the Philharmonia. I wish him luck in achieving the same refinement of sentiment and sound, the same sense of awe and inscrutability in other places that he gets with his old band in the hall he built and in which he retains an indispensable time share.

-- Mark Swed

Los Angeles Philharmonic with Esa-Pekka Salonen; Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; $44-$167; (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

Photo: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the U.S. premiere of Magnus Lindberg's "Grafitti." Credit: Anne Cusack /Los Angeles Times

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