Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Never Can Say Goodbye

April 10, 2009

Leila Josefowicz and Esa-Pekka Salonen with the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

The penultimate (I love that word) program from Esa-Pekka Salonen and the L.A. Philharmonic arrived Thursday and it was one excellent show. All of the L.A. music glitterati were there again including the likes of Peter Sellars, Bill Viola, Frank Gehry, and John Adams. It seemed all of the few remaining big print music journalists were present such as Tommasini, Alex Ross, and our own local crew creating a World Wildlife Fund-like tableau of creatures at risk of vanishing from the face of the earth. Needless to say it was turning out to be a Big Occasion. The evening started off with the Salonen tribute video the Philharmonic put together and he was again met with a standing ovation, an experience I’m sure will be repeated frequently in this next week, although tonight there was even more reason for such responses in that the centerpiece of the evening was the world premiere of Salonen’s Violin Concerto written especially for soloist Leila Josefowicz.

Before that business, though, the audience got to revisit Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds one of a multitude of twentieth century works Salonen introduced to L.A. audiences. (In fact, the commemorative programs distributed at these shows contain a huge multi-page list of exactly what all of those newly introduced works were.) It was Salonen at his astral and haunting best and another reminder of all that we’re losing with his departure. In many ways, there couldn’t have been a more appropriate intro to Salonen’s own composition than the Ligeti in that while they are musically dissimilar, his impressive new work is cut from the same cloth on a more emotional level. The Violin Concerto appears to be blazingly difficult, and the dexterity that Josefowicz showed in nearly non-stop flights of notes in the first and third movements at break neck speed should make one re-evaluate exactly where she stands in the hierarchy of violin greats.

The four movement work starts with “Mirage”, one of these virtuosic spans that is all about the string sound, not just that produced by the soloist, but from the orchestra as well. Unlike Salonen’s recent Piano Concerto, he gives Josefowicz plenty of room to roam, and the orchestration, while often accenting her part, is not constantly eclipsing it. The piece then slides into two middle sections “Pulse I” and “Pulse II”. Although very different in attack, the movements both are based around the soloist's response to a somewhat regular rhythm laid out in the percussion. Salonen refers to this as akin to a heartbeat in the program notes, and in the first “Pulse” section the tone is quiet, steady, and glowing. There is an intimacy here, although the music is never exactly delicate or fragile. The second “Pulse” is diametrically opposite in its aggressive tone and flight of noise. Salonen references pop music idioms by incorporating a standard drum kit to underscore the tone. The soloist now fights to keep in the mix, but not in a bad way at all. The final movement, “Adieu” again returns to an astral oscillation of sorts with the soloist returning to a position more like the Ligeti piece. Salonen notes that the movement references a natural process of transition between beginnings and endings. There is certainly a drama here, and, though the piece never seems to have a distinct direction from A to B in a narrative sense, it’s a frequently beautiful reflection on time and process. I rather liked the Violin Concerto overall and found it much more interesting than Salonen’s Piano Concerto. I felt mesmerized by this piece over its thirty minutes. The collaboration between the composer and soloist in developing the work has created something special and, I would argue, very memorable.

The evening ended with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in a juiced-up, muscular performance that never lost its cool. It was really good and again seemed a perfect fit for Salonen’s own composition considering its reliance on some of the same rhythmic elements to set the stage for other activity. The crowd was highly enthusiastic and gave Salonen huge ovations at every point in the evening. It’s going to be such a let down when all this comes to an end. But there is still time to get in on some great shows and this one will repeat on Friday morning and Saturday night.



I attended the Thursday 10am rehearsal and totally agree with your assessment of the Violin Concerto, although I apparently enjoyed the piano concerto more than you did.
Going Saturday night to hear it again.
And that Beethoven 5th, my he sure took it in a muscular kind of way. The perfect antidote.
Can't wait for Saturday night.
And then of course there is next Sunday, the 19th!
OMG - that Beethoven 5th was even better in performance than the rehearsal.
And the Violin Concerto is the treat that no one expects, except those of us who know and appreciate Salonen.
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