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Firework Farewell From Salonen and Philharmonia

November 11, 2012

Cal Performances

SalonenYou could hear a pin (or better, a student tuition-hike letter) drop for a full 15 seconds after Esa-Pekka Salonen finished his rendition of Gustav Mahler’s last completed symphony at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall Sunday afternoon. Then the standing ovation of cheers, whoops, hoots, and whistles began, and continued unabated for many minutes. Salonen and his Philharmonia Orchestra had done a remarkable job of conveying the spirit, range, and complexity of this concert-filling work, regarded by many as Mahler’s farewell to life.

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Why was this concert, among the jewels of the current Cal Performances season, such a success? For one thing, Salonen’s energized conducting style was compelling. I wonder how many of his gestures would Mahler, a favorite of cartoonists for his flamboyance, have admired? My favorite was Salonen’s way of flipping his baton behind his neck, like pulling a bowstring, to rest between his shoulder blades, then catapulting it forward in an arrowshot to the orchestra.

Yet Salonen’s show was merely frosting. The real key was in the conductor’s accelerated choices of tempo, especially in the first two movements. The first is not very helpful in its tempo designation, andante comodo (“moderate, comfortable”). Most conductors take their time with the series of five eruptions that comprise the immensity of this music.

Salonen and his Philharmonia Orchestra had done a remarkable job of conveying the spirit, range, and complexity of this concert-filling work. Salonen, however, heightened the effect of it by bringing the movement home in 26 minutes — fully 3 to 4 minutes faster than 9 major recordings of the movement charted on the Web. The second movement, of country dances and waltzes, was no slouch either at 15:30, or 1 to 2 minutes faster than most conductors lead it. The last two movements were performed in average time spans, but in the third, Salonen lingered in some spots so he could race through the end to great effect.

MahlerJudicious friskiness can be a wise strategy with Mahler because the man has so much to say, in hundreds of different ways, and each way is just as worth saying as every other way — however repetitious the elements are of each way — so that getting them over with as fast and as musically as possible can be an eye-opener for those saturated with his music over a lifetime. I speak, in particular, about a phrase introduced in the middle of the third movement that was (probably unintentionally) used by John Williams as the main theme for E.T. This “turn” (as referred to by analysts), is repeated more than 50 times in the finale. Too much of a good thing?

Now for an important question: How much of the Philharmonia’s success Sunday was due to the instrumentalists? Their commitment was evident in the excitement in their gestures during performance, their response to Salonen’s direction, and their applauding the audience back during the ovation. No flaws were evident in any single musician’s rendition of what, for the most part, is difficult music. But the issue of synchronicity of performance cannot be resolved. I fear that the abysmal acoustics of Zellerbach Hall’s delay sounds’ arrival times such that an artificial asynchronicity is generated.

Judicious friskiness can be a wise strategy with Mahler because the man has so much to say. I know the noise-sucking rafters were responsible for the worst moment in the evening, when the climactic crash of cymbals in the first movement, marked fortississimo in the score, went unheard, even though I saw the percussionist slap his plates together. So I’ll give the orchestra benefit of the doubt and blame the building for some messy, complex sections that came across as blurred.

I hope the Philharmonia comes back to the Bay Area to another auditorium someday. But I’ll run to listen to them and Salonen, even if they play the Cow Palace.

Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of the National Association of Composers, USA, a former president of Composers, Inc., and has served on the Board of New Music Bay Area.