Salonen sizzles at Symphony Center

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and guest musicians in the world-premiere performance of Samuel Adams’ Chamber Concerto, featuring violinist Karen Gomyo. -Todd Rosenberg

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Esa-Pekka Salonen has just completed a two week residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the results were remarkable. The Finnish conductor led three programs for a total of eight performances. Some of the music was world-premiere new; some was quite familiar. But all of it had sizzle and excitement.

Salonen’s residency began with four performances of Mahler’s towering 9th Symphony. I heard the Saturday night concert, which was played before a good-sized crowd who gave the CSO their rapt attention.

Mahler’s final completed symphony is a sprawling one, and it clocked in at a well-paced 82 minutes under Salonen’s baton. Introspective, often juxtaposing quiet, tender passages with great, tumultuous ones, the work has been seen as deeply personal to the composer who would not live long enough to hear it performed.

Salonen’s interpretation was deeply satisfying. He opened with a gentle graciousness and from there never lost the sense of the natural flow of the music. The performance captured both the grand and bold moments as well as the small, soft gestures.

The performance was energetic yet always unrushed. There was joy and fear and mystery. Salonen shaped and sculpted the turning points with artistry and knew how to create grave and engrossing music.

The audience was quick to its feet when the final sounds had at last died away. The conductor then spent time giving individual members of the orchestra, as well as entire sections, their individual points of applause.

The following Monday night, Salonen presided over the final concert of the 20th season of MusicNOW, the CSO’s new music program. It was also the final concert of Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek’s as Mead Composers-in-Residence at the CSO. To celebrate the milestone, both of these composers had world-premieres at this concert.

Ogonek’s “The Water Cantos [notes from quiet places]” is divided into four parts, musical portraits of places in Northern New Mexico and Southern Oregon which describe places of importance to the composer. It is scored for flute doubling piccolo and alto flute, two clarinets doubling bass clarinets, four cellos, bass, three percussion, and piano.

Ogonek’s musical vocabulary is tonal, accessible, and pleasing. The first two movements captured icy cold and one could hear lyrical phrases reminiscent of Samuel Barber or Benjamin Britten. The music at its best was engaging, but overall seemed over long. Her idea of a quartet of cellos was an interesting one, but she failed to fully exploit it.

Nonetheless, this is a composer to watch and her music is bound to grow in strength and expressiveness.

The concert closed with “Chamber Concerto” by Adams. It is a five-movement violin concerto by a composer who writes in his program notes that he finds “the idea of a concerto a bit suspect” because he finds it an example of “lopsided musical hierarchies.” Even so, soloist Karen Gomyo gave a stunning performance of the violin part. She was expressive while controlled, and gave every evidence that hers was a deeply considered interpretation.

Salonen maintained the energy of the piece, even when — like in Ogonek’s work — the piece became too long to maintain a strong interest throughout.

Also on the program was Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s “Ró.” This 11-minute meditation on stillness was slow and quiet throughout, relying on soft power. Even the percussion was remarkably quiet, using such elements as crinkling paper for gentle effects. Salonen, who conducted in black jeans and dark athletic shoes, found the beauty in the calm stillness of the music.

The concert opened with a much older piece of music, the 1997 composition “Related Rocks” by fellow Finn and friend of Salonen, Magnus Lindberg. Scored for two pianos, two percussion, and electronics, the piece was taut and mysterious and offered a splendid melding of live performance and atmospheric electronic sound.

Salonen’s final concerts in Chicago this season were three performances with the CSO in which he shared the stage with keyboard great Mitsuko Uchida. She was the piano soloist in Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3. I heard the Thursday night concert and found her playing revelatory, with a pert, crisp approach that made every line of music seem natural and inevitable.

There was not only excitement from the keyboard, but from the entire orchestra, as Salonen found all the serenity in the middle “Adagio religioso.” The final movement had exciting counterpoint and a most satisfying conclusion.

The concert opened with Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn by Brahms. We now know what Brahms did not: that the music which inspired him here was not by Haydn, but probably by his star student, Ignaz Pleyel. But no matter, the lovely variations Brahms created are their own delight and Salonen led the orchestra through them always mindful of clarity and the interplay of the gentle and the grand.

The final movement put the composer’s explosion of inventiveness quite clearly on display and was the capstone to a fine performance.

The concert closed with “Verklärte Nacht” (“Transfigured night”) by Schoenberg. It was composed in 1899 as a sextet for two violins, two violas, and two cellos, but was arranged for string orchestra in 1917 (and revised in 1943) and it was the string orchestra version that the CSO offered up.

The music, which precedes the composer’s development of the 12-tone technique, is richly late-romantic while sharply and cleverly dissonant. Its luxurious chromaticism was fully drawn out by the orchestra. Salonen employed supple phrasing and drew out the dramatic elements, never letting them slide into sentimentality. He did a marvelous job of slowly building from climax to climax while letting the quiet moments tell their own stories.

It was a moving performance and a fitting close to a very pleasing residency for Salonen.