Sibelius Is the Star in Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Concert With the Philharmonia Orchestra

Rebecca Wishnia on March 18, 2019
The Philharmonia Orchestra, London

In January, Esa-Pekka Salonen visited to conduct San Francisco Symphony, the orchestra he will direct starting in the 2020–2021 season, for a single program. For me, it was an informative, if inconclusive, preview of the music director Salonen might be.

The distribution of good and bad, old and new was almost eerily similar in Friday’s concert, which featured Salonen conducting his home ensemble of the last decade — London’s Philharmonia Orchestra.

January’s S.F. Symphony program had included a fantastic performance of Sibelius’s Four Legends from the Kalevala, and Friday’s concert at Zellerbach Hall presented another Sibelius gem: the 1914 tone poem The Oceanides. It’s an unusually textured work whose overflowing supply of motives coalesce in one complete system — but there isn’t much melody to speak of.

Esa-Pekka Salonen

The music is often compared to Debussy’s La Mer, but to me, it’s more like the prelude to Das Rheingold — endless streams of a single chord — or today, John Luther Adams’s trance-inducing Become Ocean. More than anything else, it’s rhythmically vital: There is an almost nervous undercurrent throughout, its beating occasionally glinting of gold.

Zellerbach is a challenging hall for orchestras, but on Friday, the sound was magnificent: Even the largest waves washed over the auditorium without being pushed. The encore was, blessedly, more Sibelius: a gorgeously veiled Valse triste.

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, too, was sumptuous, seamlessly blended in a way that worked well, particularly in the opening, whose low string entrances were like pulsing masses. The sound in the Elegia was velvety, its shudders indistinct yet rich. 

Sometimes, though, I wanted the music to be more electrifying. In places like the finale’s fugue, secondary voices were only loosely defined where Bartók’s music seems to call for clear boundaries. Earlier this year, Salonen’s direction of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra at SFS had produced the same impressionistic effect, one that didn’t always feel appropriate to the music.

The meat of Friday’s program was Salonen’s own cello concerto, from 2017 — so long ago, he said to the audience, he’s now free of any artist’s bias. I don’t know about that.

Truls Mørk | Johs Boe

Soloist Truls Mørk was the shining light: He played the high, lyrical passages as if the positions had no bounds. (Mørk’s repertoire includes many difficult new concerti, in addition to the standard repertoire, and anything he plays sounds utterly convincing.)

Salonen’s orchestration is the other star: virtuosic especially in the first movement, whose extended metaphor of a comet creates some pretty and coloristic overlays for the solo line. And in the slow movement, there are some unusually intimate moments — the duet between cello and alto flute, especially.

Yet these textures are essentially fancy dressing for empty content. This is a concerto whose technical vocabulary is of the 19th century, and whose harmonies rarely sound very new. And the novelty — unexpected pastiche in the finale — sounds dull and bloated; listening to the extended bongo solo is like listening to the explanation of a catastrophically unfunny joke.

Even the live electronic feedback — mentioned as a central feature in both the program notes and Salonen’s long introductory speech — isn’t particularly involved. The simple delay effect is only an echo chamber.

The first recording, with Salonen conducting Yo-Yo Ma (who premiered the work) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was just released and so hasn’t climbed to the top of the search index. When I first Googled the work, I instead clicked on an album of Salonen conducting the first cello concerto by Magnus Lindberg. Now, that’s a piece.