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Salonen Joins S.F. Symphony to Chase an Elusive Nyx

May 4, 2015

San Francisco Symphony

Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.

It is a rare treat these days to witness a conductor conducting his own music. Mahler did it, Leonard Bernstein is the the most notable recent example, and Michael Tilson Thomas has been known to do it. Esa-Pekka Salonen, former director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and now in demand all over the world, is emerging as the preeminent conductor-composer of our day.  His Nyx (2010), an energetic tone poem about the Greek goddess of the night was performed by the San Francisco Symphony this weekend.

If you’ve never heard of Nyx, you’re not alone. She’s not mentioned often in Greek mythology; although she was one of the first beings in the story of creation and is the parent of both death and sleep. In Salonen’s search for this elusive spirit, he doesn’t quite seem to catch her. The piece is restless, with no orchestral color staying put for more than a few phrases. A dizzying torrent of ideas, unpredictable and always exciting, it made for a captivating experience. But in retrospect, it was a bit much — less would have been more. It felt like Salonen was showing off his tremendous orchestration skills rather than delving into the soul of the night. Salonen’s insider knowledge of the modern orchestra both as a horn player and an experienced conductor has given him an enormous palette of possibilities to choose from, and he squeezed in as many as he could. 

Salonen’s insider knowledge of the modern orchestra both as a horn player and an experienced conductor has given him an enormous palette of possibilities to choose from, and he squeezed in as many as he could. He included some daring passages for the horns — something that only a horn player would attempt. A jagged clarinet solo accompanied by twinkling strings stuck out as one memorable area, as did the final melody in the strings, accompanied by shimmering winds. He kept the entire orchestra busy with challenging notes, which means that no one was bored and so they gave him an earnest reading.

Salonen chose Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird to bookend his composition. Ravel was a logical partner as he was the composer who really opened up the orchestra’s color palette early in the 20th Century. The members of the San Francisco Symphony coasted through this gorgeous piece with a lush, dark sound, prompted by little more than gentle, little finger gestures by Salonen.

Firebird, too, was a great fit as it is also about an elusive imaginary creature. The strings sounded fantastic in their ponticello (bowed on the bridge for a metallic grainy sound) swells, and the extreme dynamic contrast kept me on my toes. The “Infernal Dance” was so exciting that it elicited spontaneous applause in the middle of the piece. A lesser composer would have ended there. But Stravinsky takes the energy level back down to a soft blanket sound for a last giant swell — an epic sigh of ecstasy played with such intensity that it prompted an immediate standing ovation.

Correction: This review originally stated the performance was the Northern California premiere of Nyx. The Berkeley Symphony performed the piece in May of 2014. The review has been corrected.

Be'eri Moalem (www.beeri.org) is a violist, teacher, writer, and composer.

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