Having just returned from a ten-day Asian tour, the New York Philharmonic invited composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen to lead this week’s subscription concerts. The program he chose brought forward two constants of his distinguished career: the indomitable faith in younger composers (who he has promoted enthusiastically and unselfishly since his days at the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic) and the desire to shed new light on the jewels of the standard repertoire.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Clive Barda
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Clive Barda

The 12-minute-long Metacosmos, commissioned by the Philharmonic, had its world première on Wednesday night. In a brief introductory conversation with the conductor, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir talked about the work’s genesis and goals, about “beauty growing out of chaos”, about “moving beyond the horizon” and taking a journey into the unknown, “going with the flow”. Written for a large orchestra and taking full advantage of various timbral colorings, Metacosmos is an eerie, atmospheric piece, from its Rheingold-evoking initial pianissimo to a finale that might be considered serene if it wasn’t for all the equivocal harmonies one can perceive. Cues in this musical tapestry, superbly laid out by Salonen, are almost seamlessly passed from one group of instruments to another. Growing tensions between strings, winds and percussion take the listener on a voyage imbued with amazement but also angst. At points, one has the impression of vistas without borders. Elsewhere, huge, unknown beings, heavily breathing, seem to be very close. Bursts of spiraling energy alternate with moments of supreme calm. Overall, the work has a cinematographic quality conjuring, perhaps, the strangeness of Andrei Tarkovsky’s late movies. In Metacosmos, Thorvaldsdóttir proves again to be an artist of deep originality.

Salonen placed on one side and the other of the interval two undisputable masterpieces of Beethoven’s middle creative period, not very often performed together. The old question – how to rekindle in today’s blasé listeners’ minds the thoughts of early 19th-century spectators confronted with the terrifying novelty of this music – was answered with various degrees of success.

The soloist in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto was the young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, making his debut in a New York Philharmonic subscription series. He tackled the difficult score with tremendous poise and immaculate technique, keeping a perfect balance between underlying the overall arch of any given phrase and bringing forward the richness of individual details. Transitions, such as switching between thematic reminiscences in the first movement’s cadenza or the measures before the final return of the theme in the Rondo where wonderfully handled. It was more a performance looking back to Classicism than to Schubert, a bit surprising for a pianist renowned for his renditions of the Romantic repertoire. At times, the winds didn’t seem to be willing to be an equal partner to the soloist, as they should, but it was a generally laudable performance.

Barely settled on the podium, Esa-Pekka Salonen forcefully launched the two revolutionary E flat chords starting the Third Symphony, signaling from the very first bars that this is going to be a performance marked by bursting energy and rapid tempos. Not everyone on the stage fully agreed though, and some of the instrumentalists – mainly the horns – had, at times, difficulties following the conductor’s indications. Salonen’s approach, avoiding any potential lingering, was better suited for the last two movements. The Allegro seemed slightly rushed and the Marcia funebre lacked, occasionally, solemnity. There were, though, many remarkable aspects in this rendition: the careful accents that Salonen placed on the many radical elements of this music, the transparent handling of the contrapuntal segments, crescendos of great effect and, last but not least, the outstanding contribution of principal oboe Liang Wang.

These are Salonen’s last Philharmonic performances as The Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence, a role he fulfilled since the 2015-2016 season. Regretfully for his many admirers, who hoped in vain he might be replacing Alan Gilbert as Music Director, he is not scheduled to conduct the orchestra again in the immediate future.