My big night out this week was spent at the New York Philharmonic’s Tuesday evening concert, surely the case for most other 23-year-olds. (I kid, and yet over the past couple of years I have noticed a decided increase in young faces at Avery Fisher Hall.) I had intended to sit anonymously in the audience and get swept into the music like a leaf in the autumn wind. But instead of floating placidly through a breeze, I found myself sucked into swirls and whirls of biting, brittle air, never quite sure where I would be taken next. The music was conducted so fantastically – almost phantasmagorically – that I felt compelled to write a review, if only to gush belatedly over this program, the final performance in a series of five.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Sonja Werner
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Sonja Werner

Starting with the suite from Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye (“Mother Goose”), conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen steered the Philharmonic through one of the most breathtaking concerts I’ve witnessed. The arcs and strains of Ravel’s wordless fairy tales were exaggerated not in a cartoonish way, but in a manner that awakened memories of childhood wonder. The entrance of new sounds (or characters), for instance the high-pitched chirrups of the first violin and flutes during the “Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty”, were conveyed with genuine enchantment, as if the Philharmonic were reading Charles Perrault’s stories aloud in their own ethereal language. The whispers and whistles of the impressionistic melodies fell together with the glitter of the xylophone into an exciting narrative with an exquisite “happily ever after”.

Mr Salonen, who “thinks of himself more as a composer than a conductor”, next conducted his own Violin Concerto. Leila Josefowicz, the soloist for whom the work was composed when it was commissioned in 2008, had her mighty musicality and endurance on display. The work was busy, brutal, bewildering. As soon as it ended, I longed to hear it again. Mr Salonen’s work reaches into and out of time, focusing on a soft heartbeat and then ballooning out into a kaleidoscope of pop, jazz, or folk music. The “mirage” of the first movement resonates with abstractions and impossibilities. Ms Josefowicz seemed to defy the limitations of the human body as she blustered through a tremendous flurry of notes. I could hardly believe when, instead of passing out from the exertion, she played an encore.

The concerto’s final movement, “Adieu”, had been marked by nostalgic harmonies occasionally reminiscent of the music of another Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius. These were interspersed with the courageous textures of an exemplary line-up of percussion instruments: marimba, vibraphone, tom-toms, gongs, bells, snare drum, bass drum, timpani, and three types of cymbals. The concerto ended not when people burst into applause at the apotheosis of the second “Pulse” movement, nor with the almost expected finality of a “farewell”, but with a gaping chord, unanswered, unresolved. As Mr Salonen put it in the program notes: “That chord is a beginning of something new”.

Fitting then, to end the concert with a completely new-sounding rendition of Sibelius’ Symphony no. 5 in E flat major. Sibelius died the year before Mr Salonen was born, after decades of tortured existence and unfinished scores tossed in the fireplace. His Fifth Symphony and its many revisions occupied him for several years, and typically it calls to my mind tranquil images of a woodsy, high-treed country I’ve never seen. The sweeping sequence of the third movement invokes comfort and even triumph, especially under Mr Salonen’s baton – which here came to resemble a sword. The dissonances sliced across our ears like knives; the swells and stops were intensified with a carved precision – and yet I have never heard Sibelius sounding so whole, so alive. Mr Salonen rent the final staggered cadence with such excruciating silences that when it was all finally over, I felt as if a whirling dervish had torn through my brain, leaving my thoughts upside-down. My first inclination was to grasp at the experience with words in an inadequate effort to better understand or remember it, but ultimately this was a concert that transcended words. Even so, the ineffability of Mr Salonen’s conducting – and composing – will not be easily forgotten.