It's not unusual for Ludovic Morlot to offer a spirited brief introduction to a particular piece. But at the top of last night's Seattle Symphony concert, the maestro was eager to elucidate a rationale threading together the motley menu of Samuel Barber, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and a Tchaikovsky warhorse: essentially, the proposition that all three works represented  personal responses to periods of challenge or even crisis.

Jennifer Koh © Juergen Frank
Jennifer Koh
© Juergen Frank

This listener is unable to claim that any deeper, subliminal connections – of the sort frequently elicited by Morlot's imaginative juxtapositions – emerged along the way and following some reflection. But no matter: pleasures and insights aplenty sprang from this first Seattle performance of a score that towers above so many in the contemporary obsession with new works in the concerto genre.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto – premiered in 2009, winner of the 2012 Grawemeyer Award, and famously featured in an Apple iPad commercial – marked the career turning point when the artist concluded his remarkable 17-year-long tenure at the helm of  the Los Angeles Philharmonic in order to devote more time to composing. Lasting half an hour, the four-movement Violin Concerto weaves in a myriad references from Bach to rock, many of them wondrously subtle, without once diluting the uniqueness of Salonen’s vision.

The result is light years beyond the merely clever eclecticism indulged in by many composers today. Nor is there much for the tiresome ‘geography is destiny’ mindset to latch onto. Finnish mapmakers will be perplexed by the New World co-ordinates needed to plot the third movement (‘Pulse II’), for example. Salonen himself describes the final chord of the work as representing “a door to the next part of my life of which I didn’t know so much yet, a departure with all the thrills and fears of the unknown”.

The violinist Leila Josefowicz is closely associated with the Concerto, which she premiered and has performed widely; she was originally scheduled to introduce it to Seattle but had to cancel her Fall concerts owing to the birth of her third son. Taking her place was Jennifer Koh, who made a formidable champion of the work in this ‘role debut’. Koh commanded the full technical arsenal required for Salonen’s expressive purposes: unrelenting, rapid-fire arpeggiations in the first movement, ethereal sustained notes (especially at the highest extreme of the instrument’s register), vertiginous interval leaps. Most impressive of all was Koh’s use of phrasing and articulation, from aggressively steely attacks to the whitest, most featherweight tones.

Morlot, who trained as a violinist himself, seemed entirely in his element in this compelling performance The work’s internal contrasts fascinated, and Salonen’s gifts as an orchestrator were given their full due, drawing the ear not merely to spellbinding colours, but to Salonen’s ability to differentiate his palette within a relatively confined slice of the spectrum as well. The final movement (‘Adieu’) unfolded its ineffably beautiful melody and masterful dramatic process in a way that brought fulfilment rather than simplistic resolution to the restless mirage of the opening.

The concert opened with a well-played account of Samuel Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra from 1942. The woodwinds were especially exemplary here, as in the Tchaikovsky, while the brass might have been somewhat better integrated into the total sound picture. Morlot gave special attention to Barber’s brainy lyricism, deftly folding together its polyphonic layers in the second development of this highly condensed music. 

In Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4 in F minor, the impression was of avoiding sentimental clichés and overblown melodrama, but a countervailing coherence never quite took its place. The opening fanfare – and in most of its recurrences – for example, reminded me of an actor declaiming famous lines without having decided on the precise dominant effect that is wanted.

Details such as the woodwinds’ tiny bursts of colour at the reprise of the Andantino theme acquired an interesting but eccentric significance. There was plenty of wonderful music-making from the orchestra’s principals; bassoonist Seth Krimsky gave delightfully characterful phrasing to his solos. Morlot presided over thrilling ensemble work in the finale, in which Tchaikovsky seems to reimagine Mozart’s Figaro Overture with an added kick of janissary effects.