Salonen shows his skill at CSO

Classical Music Critic

Last month Esa-Pekka Salonen was awarded the Nemmers Prize in Music Composition by the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University and last week Chicago audiences had a chance to hear him conduct one of his recent works on the podium in front of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Entitled “Nyx” (a figure from Greek mythology), this 18-minute composition for large orchestra is muscular and mysterious, with a large range of moods and colors. In describing it, Salonen writes, “I set myself a particular challenge when starting the composition process, something I hadn’t done earlier: to write complex counterpoint for almost one hundred musicians playing tutti at full throttle without losing clarity of the different layers and lines; something that Strauss and Mahler so perfectly mastered.”

“Nyx” opens with horns (Salonen’s own instrument while a student at the Helsinki Academy) and the sound grows spectacularly as other instruments join the fray. An exciting climactic moment gives way to a bassoon melody over quietly humming strings which then opens into a sinuous melody on clarinet.

One of the most beautiful elements of the work has shimmering effects from the winds combined with vibraphone.

The work winds its way from idea to idea seamlessly, making splendid use of dynamic contrasts and shifting orchestral textures. It ends with a quiet ascending passage, smiling and with a hint of light.

Also on the program was the Dvorak Violin Concerto in A Minor with the great German violinist Christian Tetzlaff as soloist. This piece was among the very first works performed by the CSO, appearing during the third week of concerts in the orchestra’s inaugural year, 1883.

Salonen drew out strong declaration from the orchestra before the violin’s first entrance. Tetzlaff’s playing was marked by a sweet and gleaming sound, glorious legato and caressing tenderness. The orchestra swelled with full-blooded romanticism.

The final movement crackled and sparked with intensity and even the most rapid runs were navigated by Tetzlaff with amazing grace and ease.

The concert opened and closed with works by Janacek. First was the Overture to “From the House of the Dead,” which is from the Czech composer’s final opera. Janacek described the opera, understandably enough, as “black” and he steeped himself in Dostoyevsky’s book, translating it himself into Czech as he composed.

This brief overture, only six minutes, is a compressed exemplar of Janacek at his best. Salonen led the orchestra in a crisp reading as the primary melodies darted from one part of the orchestra to the next. Concertmaster Robert Chen was spot on for the refreshing little solo for violin.

The closing work was Janacek’s Sinfonietta which was the result of a commission to write a fanfare for a national festival of gymnastics in Prague. Each of the five movements is scored for a different set of instruments, ingeniously chosen by the composer to perfectly convey the different themes.

The opening for trumpets, tubas and timpani was soaring and brilliant. Standing at the back, the trumpets were able to pierce the hall with bright, bold sound.

In the second movement, Salonen drew out the contrasts between the punchy, muted trombones and the smooth sound of the strings. The winds added the vital connecting tissue, helping to realize Janacek’s more lyrical elements.

The Moderato had admirable clarity, beginning softly in the strings, later featuring unyielding and obdurate trombone work.

Throughout, Salonen expertly observed the unique elements of the work: the pulsing tuba, the unusual interplay of flutes and trombones, the unexpected sound of the bells, the driving rhythms and the haunting harmonies.

The closing movement, which reprises the opening brass fanfare, was stirring stuff. The trumpet players were again on their feet (three trumpets in F at the back of the orchestra and eight trumpets in C standing in the aisles of the terrace, the seating section behind and above the orchestra). There was dramatic propulsion in the strings and swirling sound in the winds. But the brass players were the stars, and acquitted themselves marvelously. The thundering sound of the orchestra was followed by thundering applause in the audience.