In the days leading up to the weekend's concerts, the Los Angeles Philharmonic made international headlines with recently announced plans for its upcoming centennial season. The ambitious and inclusive 2018-19 programme, to feature works by 61 living composers, 22 women, and 27 composers of colour, has been praised as a beacon for orchestras wishing to transform themselves into genuinely 21st-century institutions.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Benjamin Suomela
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Benjamin Suomela

This is no sudden departure. In fact, it was during Esa-Pekka Salonen's 17-year tenure as music director (1992-2009) that the LA Phil embarked on its trailblazing course. Far from a glance backward, Friday evening's concert with Salonen on the podium seemed like another exuberant salvo in the orchestra's campaign to lead the way forward. The combination of new and old proved delectably complementary, food for the mind and senses... and downright fun.

Friday marked the second in a series of four concerts pairing each of the Finnish conductor-composer's three mature concertos (for piano, violin, and cello) with Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. Also on hand were the soloists for whom Salonen originally wrote his concertos: Yo-Yo Ma, Leila Josefowicz, and Yefim Bronfman

The intermissionless concert on Friday evening gave the spotlight to the earliest of these works, the Piano Concerto, returning to the Disney Concert Hall stage where it premiered one decade ago. The composer's notes to this substantial, fertile, 35-minute score make just one programmatic reference (for the second movement), intended as an homage to the sci-fi writings of Stanisław Lem. Salonen says he envisioned "a post-biological culture, where the cybernetic systems suddenly develop an existential need of folklore. Composing intelligence creates music that somehow relates to an area that long ago was called the Balkans. All this is accompanied by bird-robots."

Yet the Piano Concerto at heart is an ode to the self-referential poetry of musical invention itself – which in Salonen's case means in particular a fascinating harmonic palette, intricate rhythmic tension, and a refined taste for colour that reaches for unexpected combinations while at the same time being focused. Quite generous with his ideas, Salonen juxtaposes and interlocks these in subtle ways, such as the emergence of a background accompaniment pattern on the piano in the first movement that later acquires great significance. Listening to these reconfiguring gestures is like exploring the secret compartments of an elaborately crafted curiosity cabinet.

Formally, even though cast in the familiar three movements (Salonen calls them "parts"), there's nothing conventional or routine about the construction. The variation principle characteristically dominates – even the rondo idea that guides the last movement is construed as a sequence of metamorphosing chords – and one senses that events are continually evolving from any given moment. 

Yefim Bronfman variously evoked a Stravinskified Gershwin in the midst of improvising, Messiaen caught mid-rapture, and a tautly articulate Prokofiev. In recent encounters, I've been admiring Bronfman's balance of intensity with nuance, along with his sensitivity to teasing out an idea, as if running across it for the first time, all of which were in evidence here. He remained wholly immersed in the concerto, which is dedicated to him, and fluent in its wide-reaching language. Close attention to the orchestra musicians was of the essence, too, as in an intimate canon-shaped dialogue with the viola. The Piano Concerto is an ode to friendship as well: Salonen was inspired by the musicianship he admired in Bronfman, and the virtuosity he embeds in the work's textures is full of personality, never formulaic. 

For the other weekend programs, Salonen included a brief except from Heinrich Biber's 1673 Battalia as a prelude, but Friday's compact concert simply coupled the Piano Concerto with the Beethoven. This was a case of context tilling the ground for new harvests. After listening to the freshness of Salonen's musical invention, I found that the Seventh acquired a shining muscularity. So much of Beethoven's score, after all, builds from elementary components of music – scales, repeated rhythmic cells – that it became sheer pleasure to witness Salonen the conductor shaping these into action, making them cohere and blossom into vivid, vital statements.

Also a pleasure to see his interaction with these musicians: Salonen in Nike trainers, svelte and poised, getting right inside Beethoven's long-range crescendoes and, with the slightest gesture, precision-engineering vast accumulations of sound. The Finnish maestro had no need to rely on hyperbole or overkill to thrill. Indeed, this was a Seventh replete with chamber clarity and attuned to Beethoven's humour as well – the ping-ponging soundscape of the Scherzo – yet forward-moving and purposeful.

*****