Salonen charms in cohoots with Yo-Yo Ma

Classical Music Critic

Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, principal conductor and artistic advisor of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, returned once again recently to wintry Chicago to lead the CSO and to collaborate with one of the world’s most admired cellists.

Saturday night, March 2, at Symphony Center, Salonen opened a well-proportioned concert with a Sibelius tone poem. “Pohjula’s Daughter” had not been performed by the CSO for nearly 50 years (Morton Gould conducted it in 1965). Salonen’s command of Sibelius has been evident throughout his career and he was surefooted once again. The underlying story concerns Finnish folk hero Väinämöinen, who sees a beautiful northern maiden (the title character of the piece). He wants to take her away with him, but even with his magical powers he cannot perform the tasks she requires of him, and he moves on to other adventures without her.

Salonen drew out all the color, opening with deliberate slowness to highlight the beginning of the adventure. He was particularly adept at all the tempo shifts and he inspired the brass section to heroism. There was great articulation in the strings, including splendid excitement in the section where they slash stridently, portraying the maiden’s derisive laughter at Väinämöinen’s failure. (This has been claimed as the inspiration for the music in the stabbing scene of Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”) The ending was splendid: the music died slowly away to nothing, as we imagined our Finnish hero sadly moving into the distance, and then disappearing.

This was followed by a robust and detailed reading of Symphony No. 7 by Sibelius. In this, his last symphony, Sibelius took ideas for a multi-movement symphony and fused them into a single movement work that he hadn’t yet identified as a symphony at the time of its initial performance.

Salonen deftly unfurled this concentrated music with polish and precision. As the music moved from idea to idea, each idea seeming to flow directly from the previous one, Salonen created just the right texture: from shimmering transparencies to bold and dense webs. Part of the power of this symphony is the forward surging, which was controlled while retaining all its passion, right up to the triumphant, final C major chord. It was a breathtaking performance.

Yo-Yo Ma took the stage after the intermission as soloist in Witold Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto. His cello cried, yelled, whispered, begged, cajoled, laughed and more. The composer created music of amazing directness, so often like spoken declarations, and Ma found the beauty in it all. Salonen, who is leading a major retrospective of Lutoslawski to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth, was a worthy partner for the seasoned soloist, knowing when to bathe the stage in blankets of sound and when to hold back.

It was a moving performance, even if at times Ma’s emotion was so loudly drawn as to suggest he may be applying the Stanislavski method to music.

The concert closed with big, romantic stuff: Tchaikovsky’s “Francesca da Rimini”. The rhythms were crisp, the melodies soaring, the drama big, and the sound impressive.

On a recent Friday night, the Logan Center was the site of a magnificent concert honoring the musical legacy of the great American composer Ralph Shapey. Violinist Miranda Cuckson and her new music ensemble “nunc” (“now”) created a powerful program of music all by Shapey that was executed with skill and unwavering commitment.

“2 for 5,” Concerto Grosso for clarinet and string quartet (2002) featured Charles Neidich on clarinet. Not only did this accomplished musician know Shapey, but so did his father. Neidich offered a piercing performance in the first movement and a tender one in the second. The strings created a wonderful weave of music around the clarinet.

The String Quartet No. 10, “Quartet d’Amore” (2001) displayed marvelous ensemble work by nunc, and the particularly well-rendered introspective sections were gripping.
“Five” for violin and piano (1960) saw Cuckson and pianist Blair McMillen in five contrasting movements. This is striking music, memorable music, and the performance was completely satisfying from the exciting second movement to the funny fourth movement, to the intense final movement. The audience adored it.

The final work was Piano Quintet (2002) with nunc and McMillen leaving nothing undone. They reveled in the bold moments, drew out the long and intriguing lines and performed with passion.

In a pre-concert conversation, moderator Andrew Patner urged people in the audience to save their programs from this event as a valued keepsake. I know I’ll hold onto mine. Bravo to Contempo (formerly the Chicago Contemporary Players, founded by Shapey 48 years ago) for creating such a marvelous tribute to Shapey.