The turn of the century saw the rise of the orchestral tone poem, with symphony orchestras growing to unforeseen sizes with composer-conductors at the helm. Freed from the formality of classical symphonic form, composers took this opportunity to explore a dazzling array of orchestral colours and textures. These works, often programmatic in form, were a chance for composers and audiences alike to explore foreign lands and vivid images, resulting in a heightened dramatic capacity for the symphonic orchestra alone.

Marianne Crebassa © Thomas Bartel
Marianne Crebassa
© Thomas Bartel

Nobody understood this better than Maurice Ravel, whose Shéhérazade represents the pinnacle of musical Orientalism. Cast in three movements, the opening Asie is by far the most extensive, describing the romantic ideals of the middle and far east with increasingly elaborate exoticism. Marianne Crebassa's elegant mezzo-soprano is not the largest or most sumptuous but possesses a versatile range of colours and nuances, aided by her clear and intelligent way with the text. The movement was capped by a ringing high B flat that rode the crashing waves of sound from Salonen and his orchestra, who matched Crebassa's singing ideally both in terms of colour and texture. La Flûte enchantée was effectively contrasted with the previous movement, with a hushed intimacy from Crebassa that blended beautifully with the sinuous flute solo. Perhaps the best singing of the evening came with L'Indifférent, full of voluptuous tone from both singer and orchestra. Here, Crebassa revealed a creamy lower register that captured the ambiguous sensuality of the text.

If Crebassa's smoky French mezzo is an obvious choice for Ravel, Berio's Folk Songs were perhaps a more unexpected choice. Written for his then-wife Cathy Berberian, Berio tailored the song cycle around the expansive, almost husky mezzo and formidable technique that made her one of the foremost contemporary singers of her generation. The polyglot texts, ranging from Armenian to Occitan, are reflected in the broad range of folk-like textures and dissonances of Berio's orchestrations; though perhaps less obvious an orchestral showpiece than the Ravel, this offered yet another opportunity for Salonen and his orchestra to shine. Particularly striking were the opening viola chords of Black is the color, setting the scene effectively for Berio's colourful, quirky orchestrations. Crebassa's interpretation was less obviously extroverted than that of her predecessors; La donna ideale and the final Azerbaijan Love Song were performed with wry, almost observational humour and Rossignolet du bois was cheekily erotic, though A la femminisca was too low and peasant-like for her high mezzo. Best of all was Loosin yelav, an Armenian paean to the moon, which was sung with aching beauty and simplicity.

The other three works on the programme, though without text, were no less narrative. Debussy's Ibéria carries the listener from wandering the streets of Spain through the fragrant sensuousness of night to the festive morning after. Despite the castanets, Debussy's music is sheer French impressionism and the Philharmonia strings provided a wonderful gauze of sound punctuated by colourful woodwind and brass solos. What "Les parfums de la nuit" lacked in atmosphere was more than compensated in a raucous “Le matin d'un jour de fête” finale, complete with guitar-strumming pizzicatos. Italian composer Franco Donatoni might seem worlds away from Debussy – Donatoni's tone poem ESA (In cauda V) was written nearly a century later – but the works share a clarity in structure and transparency in sound that was nicely highlighted by Salonen. Commissioned in 2000 for the LA Philharmonic, the tone poem was to be Donatoni's last work, and Salonen and the orchestra infused the score with depth and humour, down to the final incomplete descending scale for the unconventional pairing of harp and harpsichord. 

But it was Respighi's Pines of Rome that truly allowed Salonen and his orchestra to bring the audience on a picturesque journey. Respighi's vivid score is almost film-like at times, and in spite of the dramatic tutti moments is full of concurrent details that Salonen presented with admirable clarity. Moments like the offstage trumpet solo, which provided stark relief from the murky creepiness of the catacombs, were given newfound dramatic justification, and the shimmering orchestration of Janiculum delighted despite a malfunctioning nightingale. The closing march down Via Appia, with surround-sound brass and a tightly controlled crescendo, brought the concert to a suitably rousing close.