Exciting new Salonen work

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere of his Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma as the soloist.

Classical Music Critic

Esa-Pekka Salonen has just completed two weeks with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra culminating in three concerts that featured the world premiere of his recently completed Cello Concerto. The soloist was his friend Yo-Yo Ma, to whom the work is dedicated.

It’s a wide-ranging piece in three movements that clocks in at about 30 minutes. In brief remarks to the audience immediately before the performance (I was there Saturday night), the Finnish composer-conductor described the first movement as the birth of consciousness out of chaos, which is followed by the orchestra trailing the soloist, like the tail of a comet. The second movement makes extensive use of looping: where brief phrases of the cello are recorded and then repeatedly played back. He said it’s like “cloning Yo-Yo Ma.” His intent is music that sounds like something that has happened on its own. The final movement is written at the individual level where there is a vital need to communicate beyond what language allows.

Salonen ended his remarks on a light note saying he had to step backstage to fetch a $12 dollar instrument: his baton.

The orchestra opens the concerto with quiet yet dense twelve-tone music. The cello enters with melodic lines that Ma made achingly beautiful. After a louder, more rapid section, the opening movement closed with the same intimacy in the cello as it had begun.

The middle section makes extensive use of looping. Sound designer Ella Wahlström recorded short phrases as Ma played them and then, using a mixing desk installed in one of the center boxes, played them back, intersecting with each other. With Ma performing on stage as well, the result was a solo cello creating its own harmonies. The effect was luminescent, otherworldly and strikingly beautiful. This mostly quiet movement also featured lovely interaction between cello and alto flute.

The final movement was the most rambunctious and was infused, by both soloist and orchestra, with great urgency. The music is rhythmically intense, this effect heightened by the prominent use of bongo and conga drums. There are dance-like moments that swirl by quickly in the orchestra as the cello plays virtuosic lines full of power evoking panic. This gradually subsides and the conclusion finds calm and rest with the cello and a cello loop finally resting on a high B-flat — which Salonen described in the program notes as “two centimeters to the left from the highest note of the piano.”

There was thunderous applause and the audience offered a standing ovation during which there were several curtain calls.

One can hear a direct line from Sibelius, Finland’s most revered composer, to Rautavaara, Salonen’s first composition teacher, and Salonen himself in this new concerto. The first movement shows the same skill Sibelius displayed in his 7th Symphony in making continuous, small, progressive changes that mysteriously create an organic whole. The second movement recalls, in part, Rautavaara’s “Cantus Arcticus” a concerto for orchestra and taped bird songs. Salonen creates at times sounds like the natural world (Rautavaara’s recorded birds) using only the cello’s highest pitches. But Salonen is his own man, and overall his composition is in his own unique voice and will stand entirely on its own.

The evening opened “Slonimsky’s Earbox” as part of a celebration of the 70th birthday of John Adams. This 1995 piece sees Adams introducing more contrapuntal aspects to his music and Salonen and the CSO gave a buoyant performance. The evening closed with Stravinsky’s “Petrushka.” Salonen led the CSO in a performance with vibrant color and lots of clearly painted detail.

The week before Salonen also led the CSO in performances of Adams and Stravinsky. “Scheherazade.2” featured violinist Leila Josefowicz as soloist. Hers was a scorching and moving performance of this 2015 Adams piece.

Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” is a work Salonen knows well and he brought rhythmic vigor and nuanced musical storytelling to his interpretation. The concert opened with Debussy’s “Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun,” where the Finnish conductor found all the supple and sensuous qualities of the music.