The birds got loose in Davies Hall over the weekend. They came in flocks and on their own, swooping and flitting, flaunting their bright plumage and pecking their way through Olivier Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques (Exotic birds, 1956) and Kaija Saariaho’s Aile de songe (Dream of the wing, 2001). San Francisco Symphony music director Esa-Pekka Salonen was the instigator and conductor of these evocatively airborne sightings.
The program began on land, with Debussy’s Prelude à l’Après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the afternoon of a faun), and ended with that composer’s venture to La Mer (The sea). It was the birds, who bracketed intermission at the center of the bill, that got and deserved prime attention.
Messiaen, whose love of all things feathered is well represented in his work, gives players both technical and pictorial instruction in his score on how he meant to bring various specimens to life. The list includes a mockingbird, cardinal, wood thrush, catbird, and bobolink. Listeners were left to their avian imaginations to envision which was which.
The invaluable pianist Jeremy Denk shouldered a big portion of the responsibilities in a piece that ostensibly presents as a piano concerto, complete with showy cadenzas, but is actually more of a polyrhythmic conversation with a woodwind and brass ensemble and a busy percussion section, with some especially bravura bits for xylophone and glockenspiel. No strings are involved.
Some things happened in sudden bursts, with Denk firing off finger-bending riffs or startling thick chords, his head darting this way and that. Others were more delicate — a short phrase hopping from keyboard to clarinet, a piccolo piping up an answer to a glockenspiel call. There were high trills, perseverating single notes, and throaty, far-off signals from assorted gongs. The brasses crowed and shrieked when the spirit — well, the composer — moved them.
Though tightly organized, Oiseaux exotiques gave off the liberating sense of spontaneity, of nature’s inscrutable logic. In one lovely effect that seemed to capture the secret life of birds, Denk used the piano’s sustaining pedal to open the strings and let them vibrate in connective forest-filling blurs of shared sound.
Citing the French poet Saint-John Perse and an Aboriginal tale about a bird teaching a village to dance as inspirations, Salonen’s fellow Finn Saariaho spoke in a taped video segment before the performance of her Aile de songe. Transmuted into another medium, poetry and narrative emerged as a vital musical language.
In a breathtaking, breath-giving performance by flute soloist Claire Chase, the birds of Saariaho took on a vital, embodied reality. Whether spinning out luminous long phrases, huffing desperately clipped ones, or whispering fragments of Perse’s lines into her mouthpiece, Chase didn’t depict birds so much as become them from the inside out. Dressed in a gray-green jumpsuit and bright gold boots, she bent at the waist and swayed and swooped with dance-like dexterity.
In sharp attacks and sudden swerves, silences, tightly wrought themes, or colorful eruptions from a large percussion ensemble, the music conjured sinew and blood, beaks and claws as much as pretty feathers. Led by Chase, one of Salonen’s designated collaborative partners, the performance staked out a dramatic, sometimes ominous territory quite unlike that of Messiaen. The program tracked birds of very different natures, suggesting that the subject might well be as large and various as the lofty kingdom itself.
The evening began with a sensuous and shapely account of Debussy’s Faun, by turns lush, surging, and delicately pert. Those virtues did not extend to La Mer, which rolled out in strangely indifferent, frequently murky episodes. Familiar as the piece is to the orchestra, it may not have gotten the rehearsal time it needed for a fresh voyage.
But never mind. Eyes and ears were turned upward by the flight Salonen, his ensemble, and two magnificent soloists took.