When a guest conductor arrives for a few concerts with an orchestra, he or she doesn’t have very much time to shape his or her interpretation. On some occasions the orchestra successfully adopts the visitor’s style; on others they just play like they always do. In Esa-Pekka Salonen’s concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra last night, the program of Debussy, Bartók, and the Finnish conductor’s own Violin Concerto was more the maestro’s style (cool modernist) than the orchestra’s (rather conservative and Romantic). The playing, however, was mostly typically Philadelphia. Sometimes this worked, and sometimes it didn’t.

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

The “Philadelphia Sound” was developed by former music directors Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy in the twentieth century: a vibrato-heavy, lush string tone with gleaming brass and winds. It’s ideally suited for the nineteenth-century warhorses those conductors made famous. The extent to which it survives today is debatable—certainly since the recent tenure of Christoph Eschenbach as music director, the orchestra has been playing with more transparency. But the orchestra’s current home, Verizon Hall, seems to believe in the myth, imparting a soft halo around the orchestra’s sound and dissipating anything hard-edged or aggressive into an enveloping warmth.

When you’re playing Bartók, though, hard-edged may be what you want. His 1937 Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste is an austere and sometimes violent work. The first movement fugue began almost imperceptibly softly and was given a tightly controlled, almost flat reading by Salonen, with the lines carefully etched and growing monolithically. The second movement’s dance rhythms seemed to demand more attack and vehemence than the orchestra was willing to give them, despite considerable flailing about by Salonen. The third movement returned to the ghostly, inexpressive world of the first, though the string ensemble sometimes left something to be desired. The final movement was unusually light and bouncy, a more refined than usual reading of this folk dance.

While Salonen didn’t quite seem to get what he wanted in the Bartók, he presumably came closer in his own Violin Concerto (winner of this year’s prestigious Grawemeyer Award). In the program notes he described dedicatee Leila Josefowicz as a close collaborator in its composition. She was, fortunately, the soloist in this concert, and her energy and personality, as well as her formidable technique and charisma, were a big part of the performance. (She also was amazingly sprightly for someone performing while very pregnant.) Elegiac and throaty violin melodies alternate with virtuosic passages of enormous leaps and rapid passagework, performed by Josefowicz with great flair and authority. Though some more modern influences are evident in an odd intrusion by a drum kit and some fiddle-like violin writing, most of it sounds like a combination of Berg and Shostakovich. While a fun and diverting piece, it doesn’t seem to go on much of an emotional journey, or pack much of a punch (the last movement is given the Mahlerian title of “Adieu,” recalling Das Lied von der Erde’s “Abschied,” but is rather modest in scale).

After this uneven start, the concert was redeemed with an outstanding account of Debussy’s La Mer that was full of clarity and light. As in his Violin Concerto, Salonen seemed less interested in forward momentum than static sound-painting, which paid off in Debussy’s shifting seascape. In “From Dawn to Midday at Sea,” the orchestra again built from an extremely soft opening to a rhapsodic conclusion. In “Play of the Waves,” the orchestra showed incredible delicacy and flexibility in its layering of ostinatos, with a particularly brilliant contribution from the glockenspiel player. In the last movement, the sea storm seemed almost happy and bright, and the orchestra finally found its chance to be loud and weighty in the work’s loud closing.