Credit: Benjamin Ealovega
Esa-Pekka Salonen | Credit: Benjamin Ealovega (courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association)

While concertos do not necessarily contain the best music by their composers, they often receive more performances than other works, particularly if a star soloist champions them. Esa-Pekka Salonen, probably the leading conductor/composer of our time and also a pragmatic musician, has written four of them one for piano, one for violin, one for cello, an early one for alto saxophone — and two others, Mimo II and Mania, that are de facto concertos for oboe and cello respectively.

So now it’s on to other instruments, in this latest case, the organ. Salonen doesn’t call his new work an organ concerto (though it clearly is one); rather, it is labeled Sinfonia Concertante for Organ and Orchestra since he claims that the function of the organ keeps changing in its relationship to the orchestra. He started it early in the COVID lockdown— spring 2020 — finished it last year, and presented it first in Katowice, Poland in January of this year.

For his one and only program this season with his old band, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, at Walt Disney Concert Hall Thursday night May 18, Salonen made his new work, a U.S. premiere, the centerpiece of some inspired programming, surrounding it with two spectacularly colored balletic stimulants from the first quarter of the 20th century. Needless to say (but we’ll say it anyway), Salonen knows that century, knows his Philharmonic, and knows the acoustical properties of the hall he inaugurated 20 years ago. This program looked made to order for all of that.

The Sinfonia Concertante is about 33 minutes long (all three Salonen concertos for piano, violin, and cello are of similar duration within a seven-minute range), divided into three movements of nearly equal length. Again, Salonen walks the tightrope of acting as a left-brain modernist composer while giving vent to right-brain emotional power that might connect to a wider symphonic audience.

The sound world of the Sinfonia Concertante is different than those of Salonen’s other concertos, which in turn are different from each other. If anything, in its structure, complexity, and sometimes overloaded textures, it bears the most resemblance to Salonen’s Piano Concerto — as opposed to the supercharged, jazzy, yet ultimately wistful Violin Concerto, and the edgy mystery of the Cello Concerto — while maintaining its own sonic profile.

The opening movement begins with a light, lyrical display of wind instruments with complex workings underneath the surface as the organ trills almost aimlessly on top of the mixture. It builds and builds to a long, loud jumble of sound that suddenly gives way to a gentle cadenza for the organ — the first of many — before settling into a dreamy closing passage. The second movement is nothing if not a perpetual succession of rising and falling musical scales, reaching another central climax before calming down with a long solo on the organ pedals. In the finale, the organ goes from one extreme to another — an almost jig-like solo, another that meanders before suddenly breaking out into big crunching clusters, a brief coda fading to an almost inaudible triple pianissimo.     

Iveta Apkalna | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association

Latvian organist Iveta Apkalna was kept busy shuffling score pages, blending into the ensemble, taking frequent solo spotlights, rocking side to side to the beat of the band when not playing in the finale. The variety of colors she coaxed out of the bundles of Disney Hall organ pipes didn’t vary much in shade or hue, but the difficult solo part gave her plenty of chances to flash some virtuosity on the keyboards and pedals.

With its churning opening chaos, the concert suite to Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin seemed to pick up right where Salonen’s modernisms left off before the fadeout, Most of the score is not really like that — the center of the suite is far more subtle and nuanced — but it’s the roaring bookends that grab your attention and stay in your head. Salonen and the Phil included the suite in the first album they recorded in Disney Hall, back in 2006 for Deutsche Grammophon, but they now play it with even more fire, precision, and fine-tuned dynamism all the way to the barbaric coda.

And to start things off, there was  a perfectly-paced rendition of Stravinsky’s Petrushka — fast and lean like they used to play in Salonen’s days with the Phil, as well as on Stravinsky’s own now-historic 1960 recording with members of the Phil and studio folk in Hollywood’s American Legion Hall. Everything about the performance had life, bounce, great rhythm, and a staggering wealth of revealed detail.

I think the hyper-critical Stravinsky, who lived in the Hollywood Hills for 28 years, would have been delighted to hear the way his music has been performed by his adopted hometown orchestra lately. And though it will be a tough act to follow, the next local Petrushka at Disney Hall in March 2024 is due to be in the hands of another leading Stravinsky champion, Michael Tilson Thomas.