Esa-Pekka Salonen returned to his old haunts looking older and looser. With the help of violinist Vilde Frang and four singers, the former music director led the LA Philharmonic in an upside-down program which left the audience screaming for more.

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

The piece that did the most damage was “the latest edition” of Salonen’s own Wing on Wing, which world premiered here in 2004 to open Walt Disney Concert Hall. Taking its title from architect Frank Gehry’s sailing imagery, Wing on Wing challenges the orchestra to fill the hall with sound in numerous ways; to highlight the precise directionality of the space, for example, he directs the two sopranos to be placed across from each other both on stage in front of the orchestra and twice in flanking sections of the audience. It is a brilliant tour de force, surprisingly reflective for something so loud, disturbingly ominous, swept by waves of water and wind, and informed by Oz-like samplings of Gehry’s voice. The music is divided into ten sections which leave the expectation of something choppy, of something that you need to follow with the composer's detailed program notes.

In fact, because the notes were so earnest and the music so wonderfully engaging that trying to follow, much less comprehend, gave way to wondering what marvelous sounds would follow next, especially any time sopranos Hila Plitmann and So Young Park sent ears into total ecstasy with amazing acrobatic flights and melting lyricism. Salonen writes that Wing is not an attempt “to translate architecture into music, which would be an impossible task anyway,” but I wonder if that isn’t the way it's worked out. Listening to it in the hall it was written for, his tribute to Gehry, acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota and the Phil's former CEO Deborah Borda seems to come more from his brilliant visual palette than his emotional heart. 

The entire first half of the concert was Beethoven’s Violin Concerto starring Vilde Frang in a promising pairing of one young star just emerging and one maturing star. In every way, beginning with quick, tightly-struck, assertive timpani strokes, this was Salonen’s interpretation. He took a remarkably brisk opening pace as if to prove he may have read a period performance treatise or two lately; the resulting musical narrative was flexible but not to the point of interrupting the dialogue between the soloist and orchestra, particularly the Phil's outstanding woodwinds, nor of obscuring the clarity of the orchestral fabric; in this scenario Frang was more a splendidly willing, deeply affecting accomplice than a conventionally commanding virtuoso. She was gracious enough to hand over her climactic chain of ascending triplets towards the end of the first movement, personally and seemingly spontaneously phrased, to Salonen and the orchestra without complaint as they snatched the flow away from her. He watched her intently as she played Kreisler’s cadenza. The second movement opened with the two bars played in what is an incongruously, if increasingly fashionable, clipped manner. Frang was magical throughout especially when pizzicatos in the strings glowed like gemstones in the dark of the slow movement before segueing matter of factly to a quick last movement. It worked in all aspects and would have been more impressive if Frang’s tone had been big enough to compete during the loudest passages even with the scaled down forces Salonen used (only six cellos and five double basses). 

In between, because they had two sopranos with time on their hands, they played the musical bits from Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor: the overture, two arias, a trio and a quartet. They called the piece The Impresario in the program notes, but they sang it in German, so Salonen’s own self-deprecating storyline and snarky comments were surtitled above the stage. Plitmann and Park sang their arias with indecently intoxicating skill, the former with a slivery, occasionally edgy tone, the latter with full-throated majesty. Joshua Dennis and Christopher Job were similarly outstanding in their much briefer roles.