Listening to Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra brought back memories of his halcyon days with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, 1992-2009, when he summoned up Sibelius with a golden magician's wand, and Beethoven with a lapidarian's curiosity. Salonen's reputation in Los Angeles – and internationally – was made by championing contemporary music's charge into the 21st century. On Wednesday night, 35 miles northwest of Disney Hall in a gleaming San Fernando Valley venue that wants to be a contender, Salonen was doing classical music business in the midst of a short California sortie with his London-based orchestra in mainstream repertoire.

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

Fifteen minutes after the concert was scheduled to start, Salonen strode lithely yet shyly out, mounted the podium like an athlete, bowed gracefully and low, and gave a full second's display of his still youthful mane. He started the Eroica off at sleek, sublimely-balanced speeds, prioritizing horizontal lines, instrumental groups and colors, and fashionably abrupt literal translations of Beethoven's sudden changes in dynamic and expressive markings.

It felt like an observer's version of Beethoven's score, superbly played but at its core disconnected from mortal consequence, let alone Napoleon, focused instead on the workings of the music's internal engine. Salonen skipped the first movement repeat, then presided over a fugue which made its way methodically towards aggressive, impatient of the disonnances; in the long building sequences that occur throughout the movement, like bars 190-221, Salonen let the Philharmonia go on their own, with no shaping or longterm goals, like Philip Glass.

The second movement was the best, minimally dirge-like and, in the maggiore section, initially and exhilaratingly like Beethoven the inheritor of Haydn and Mozart until, at the big fugue, it was all Beethoven as the Philharmonia laid out great swathes of legato sound, with even a few portamenti in the celli, more purely gorgeous and exhilarating than this passage has a right to be. This deconstruction in the conductor's exploratory style ended miraculously in a triple-piano silence erotically foreshadowed by the first violins on bar 234.

After a fast, perfunctory Allegro vivace, with the horns note perfect but cautious in the Trio, Salonen launched into the fourth movement's opening chaos a split-second before his charges but they got it together in time to race through the opening variations with Haydnesque glee and rustic rapture, before handling the insane demands of the rest of the movement as well as any modern-instrument orchestra can, bringing the symphony to a close with splendid, heroic dispatch.

From the very first beat of Sibelius' Fifth Symphony, it was clear that Salonen and the Philharmonia were operating on a different musical plane, on a wonderful kind of cruise control. The Fifth has been one of Salonen's signature pieces since his recording with an older Philharmonia for Sony in 1990 propelled his career. His performance here again demonstrated his affection and identification with an overall structure to make the music's phrases breathe and flow into the confluence of motifs, harmonic clashes, flashes of color and warmth flow, as much as it really goes anywhere. At the end, while the brass were going through their iconic upheavals, Salonen watched the celli and basses for no apparent reason for more than ten seconds at a time on two separate occasions; it was either for sheer enjoyment or perhaps a private joke. For their energetic applause, the audience was rewarded with a sophisticated performance of the coda from Stravinsky's Apollon musagète.

This weekend, the Philharmonia will wrap up its tour at Zellerbach Hall on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley with all three of its tour programs.