The Philharmonia’s 2020/21 season very much marks the end of an era. Esa-Pekka Salonen first conducted the orchestra in September 1983 – a Mahler 3 jump-in replacing Michael Tilson Thomas. He was just 25 years old at the time and freely admits to never having heard Mahler’s Third or seen the score, but he took up the challenge and obviously struck up a good rapport with the orchestra. “An amazing connection,” he calls his first encounter. “It changed my life overnight.” In 2008, Salonen took up the post of Principal Conductor, a tenure which ends with this, his 13th season. 

Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Nicolas Brodard

A feature of the Salonen era has been his curation of themed series; one thinks of City of Light (Paris 1900-1950), City of Dreams (Vienna 1900-1935), or the epic Stravinsky: Myths and Rituals. His final theme is a little more modest in scope, a three-concert exploration of Greek myths in music stretched across the season, but includes some great scores. Prometheus features Alexander Scriabin’s Fifth Symphony, subtitled Prometheus, Poem of Fire, in which the orchestra is joined by pianist Yuja Wang. Scriabin, a synesthete, called for a “colour organ” to represent sound via light so perhaps there will be a fiery spectacle to see as well as hear. The Prometheus myth also allows Salonen to celebrate birthday boy Ludwig in excerpts from his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus.

The Greek myth about the vengeful Electra and her dysfunctional family is most famously set to music in the opera by Richard Strauss, a work that shocked audiences at its 1909 premiere. Salonen conducts a concert performance of Elektra – who can forget his outstanding Pelléas et Mélisande? – in which Iréne Theorin takes on the arduous title role. Two favourite Salonen collaborators, Lise Davidsen and Anna Larsson, sing Chrysothemis and Elektra’s murderous mother, Klytaemnestra.

In his last hurrah, Salonen features twins Castor and Pollux both in the suite from Rameau’s opera and in his own composition, Gemini, before rounding things off with Ravel’s kaleidoscopic ballet Daphnis et Chloé, a Salonen speciality and a glorious, ecstatic way to bring down the curtain on his 13 seasons at the helm.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali
© Kaapo Kamu

Salonen’s successor is another Finn, Santtu-Matias Rouvali, who has already made a great impression with the Philharmonia players and audiences with his energetic style. Rouvali also marks the Beethoven anniversary, programming the Fourth Piano Concerto (with soloist Lars Vogt), but two Russian symphonies loom large on the horizon. Shostakovich’s Twelfth, dedicated to the memory of Lenin, commemorates the year of the Bolshevik Revolution, 1917. It’s a tricky, tub-thumping work to bring off but Rouvali is bound to inject it with plenty of drama. With its fateful brass motif, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth is a more familiar visitor to concert platforms and an audience favourite. It is preceded by a performance of Mozart’s lyrical Clarinet Concerto which features the Philharmonia’s new principal, Carlos Ferreria.

Principal Guest Conductor Jakub Hrůša offers three exciting programmes. The first two feature underrated 20th-century violin concertos – Britten and Szymanowski’s First, played by Isabelle Faust and Lisa Batiashvili respectively – as well as symphonies by Samuel Barber and Johannes Brahms. But it’s his “Dances of Desire” pairing of Bartók’s ballet The Miraculous Mandarin with the final scene from Strauss’ Salome which really sets the musical taste buds tingling, especially when the title role is sung by Malin Byström, whose tone was “as smooth and clean as the sheer white satin of her costume” in our review of her Covent Garden performance.

Next season sees a number of other young conductors take to the podium, including the impressive Elim Chan (well known to London audiences), cellist-turned-conductor Han-Na Chang and the recipient of the 2018 Neeme Järvi Prize, Tabita Berglund, whose programme of Grieg and Sibelius looks a winner.

Conductor Laureate Vladimir Ashkenazy, a popular figure with everyone, announced his retirement a few months ago (hence a few “tbc” listings). But huge experience remains. Christoph von Dohnányi, Herbert Blomstedt and Riccardo Muti have racked up two hundred years of conducting between them. Each returns next season, Muti after a significant spell away. He was Principal Conductor for ten years and comes back to London for Verdi’s Requiem, one of his specialities, with a crack team of soloists led by Asmik Grigorian and Anita Rachvelishvili. Dohnányi was also Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia (for eleven years) and is now Honorary Conductor for Life. Renowned for his Brahms, he pairs the First Piano Concerto (with soloist Martin Helmchen) with the autumnal Third Symphony. Meanwhile Blomstedt, a sprightly 92, will be fully at home in Anton Bruckner’s monumental Eighth Symphony. From the young guns to the podium veterans, the Philharmonia offers the full spectrum next season.

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