In one of his characteristically diverse and intriguing programs, Esa-Pekka Salonen led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a curtain-raiser by Beethoven followed by three major works spanning the latter half of the 20th century. Beethoven’s Incidental music to King Stephen, Op.117 was created on a commission to mark the opening of the Hungarian Theater in Pest. The lively overture is characterized by Magyar themes primarily in the winds, with colorful orchestral effects at times suggesting the dulcimer.  There is an interplay between slow and fast sections, perhaps invoking the lassan­/friska dichotomy in much of Hungary’s folk music.  An energetic and worthy performance of one of Beethoven’s rare moments of unbridled joviality.

The centerpiece of the evening was Lutosławski’s monumental Third Symphony, of which the CSO gave the world premiere under Solti in 1983.  In his spoken introduction, Salonen fondly recalled how news of the premiere quickly travelled and everyone in the music world knew a watershed event had happened in Chicago that week.  Perhaps more than anything, it proves beyond a doubt that the symphony was still alive and well in the late 20th century, and few are more well-versed in this repertoire than Salonen who had a very close working relationship with the composer.

Matters began with four rapid repetitions on E; this reoccurs throughout the work and serves as a veritable motto and a place of familiarity in this dense score.  The defiant opening quickly dissolved into Lutosławski’s aleatoric counterpoint, wherein the rhythmic values are approximate.  During these moments, Salonen’s arms hung motionless as if suspended in time, giving the orchestra the freedom of spontaneity.  Consequently, no two performances of this work are the same, and this type of interpretative latitude promoted a lively dialogue between orchestra and conductor.

Cast in two interconnected movements, the first occupied roughly a third of the half-hour duration and was marked by fragments of themes that tantalizingly never quite coalesced into anything beyond mere suggestion.  Patience paid its dividends, however, as the second movement – heralded by the sixth occurrence of the repeated Es – featured striking contrasts between a driving, toccata-like theme and more lyrical song-like theme.  The orchestra’s deep understanding of Lutosławski’s idiom was second to none as they dazzlingly negotiated the score’s ferocious complexities.  Dense and dramatic, the finale appears bleak and apocalyptic, the trombone glissandos seemingly pulling one down past the point of no return, yet the last words are given to the venerable and brilliant Es – in the manner of a Beethoven symphony, this too is at its core a journey from darkness to light.

As one of today’s leading composers, it’s always exciting to hear Salonen conduct his own works.  This time around, he brought Foreign Bodies, dating from 2000. Scored for a massive orchestra including quadruple woodwinds, six horns, a vast percussion battery, and even electric bass guitar, it is a piece concerned with the primal physicality of performing music.  The opening movement entitled “Body Language” was derived from his piano piece Mécanisme, and was a jaw-dropping orchestral tour-de-force; the very acoustic presence of the music was visceral.  Eventually, it gave way to a more plaintive conclusion, setting up the “Language” movement, inspired by a Swedish poem concerned with the sensations of eating ice cream.  Unusual sonic effects were achieved through the use of scordatura, in which the double basses and cellos were de-tuned.  The “Dance” movement frenetically brought matters to a close perpetuum mobile.

As if the program wasn’t already generous enough, the evening was rounded off with Yo-Yo Ma in the Cello Concerto no. 1 by Shostakovich. This is one of several products of Shostakovich’s fascination with the concerto late in his career and his sardonically subversive language is immediately recognizable.  It begins with a variant of his DSCH signature, played with grit and determination by Ma, only to be rather flippantly answered in the winds.  Daniel Gingrich’s horn solo was a highpoint, as if in dialogue with Ma.  The second movement is worlds apart, beginning with a melancholic lullaby.  In one particularly striking moment, the orchestration was reduced to cello harmonics, celesta, and violin as the music entered the realm of the disembodied and incorporeal – indeed the polar opposite of the physicality of the Salonen piece.

The massive cadenza constitutes a movement in its own right – the audience sat in rapt silence as Orchestra Hall was filled with the famous sounds of Yo-Yo Ma’s cello unaccompanied.  The energetic finale returned to the impish sarcasm of the opening, ending as it had begun on DSCH.  A highlight of next season is the world premiere of Salonen’s cello concerto with the same cast – given the prowess of Salonen as a composer and the electric synergy between him, Ma, and the CSO, this promises to be a major event.