Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Conductor Laureate, did double duty on this week’s series of concerts at Disney Hall, taking the stage as both guest conductor and featured composer. A handful of concerts spanning the end of the weekday and continuing through the weekend turned the spotlight onto Salonen the composer. Three of his concertos are receiving either their West Coast or world premières on these programs, each of which were bookended by music by Heinrich Ignaz von Biber and Beethoven.

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

It was Salonen’s Cello Concerto, with soloist and dedicatee Yo-Yo Ma, that was first up on the docket this week. A writhing creation somnambulant in mood, sometimes bejweled in tone, it and by extension the program in which it was embedded related a fascinating tale to the listener. 

The Finnish-born composer, currently based in the United Kingdom, delivers work of cosmopolitan breadth to American of Chinese descent, who then debuts it in an ethnically diverse city that the composer credits with helping him to “free” his voice. With its textures, with colors that appeared and vanished like the iridescent cresting of waves on a darkly undulating ocean, and its composer’s catholic approach to the rivulets of influences that trickle and sometimes splash into the score – the chirupping woodwinds of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé peek in here and there, while Dutilleux and Lutosławski occasionally weave their way through the spidery webs of Latin rhythms that occasionally cast their shadows on this score – the Cello Concerto could be said to be a kind of citizen of the world: fluent in an array of idioms, totally at ease in all of them. “Ni de aquí, ni de allá” (neither from here nor there) as the Spanish adage goes, which cut both ways in the work, at once lending it a bracing energy, but also leaving a curiously anonymous impression.

The work hews to the middle of the road with respect to what audiences expect of “modern” music. It incorporates gestures familiar enough to invite the more timid among them, yet employs enough modernist techniques to tip off the savvy. The result was a score where shafts of shimmering lyric beauty occasionally broke in through a seemingly endless sky of slate gray prosaicness. Yo-Yo Ma evidently lavished great care on the score, delivering a performance of great polish and fiendish technical brilliance. 

Biber’s Battaglia à 10, a weird and visionary score that forecasts Mahler and Ives despite being composed around a decade before the birth of Bach, was an appropriate opening for the program, a fitting complement and even commentary to the Salonen work that followed. A pictorial work in which strings imitate the roaring of drums and the shots of muskets finds its most telling moment in the second movement when German, Czech, and Slovak folksongs are juxtaposed one atop the other in seeming discordant chaos, which the composer annotated in the score, “Here it is dissonant entirely, for thus are drunkards used to bellowing their songs.” If Salonen’s work was the expression of the modern cosmopolitan at the reins of the globalized world, Biber’s score made for a striking contrast, inadvertently anticipating the loss of “home,” of center of gravity that has been the shared concern of those cast aside by our ever more interconnected world.

Perhaps it was Beethoven's Symphony no. 7 in A major that closed the program which best demonstrated the most noble qualities of what is being sought for in drawing closer the corners of the world, though that may have come as a surprise to the composer and his contemporaries who regarded his art as intrinsically German in inspiration and expression. 
Yet his music has become a kind of global lingua franca, a mother tongue that finds its home in Bonn as well as in Beijing. 

The collective sound that Salonen drew from the LA Phil was muscular, but never hefty; powerful without being overbearing. Textures were sharply etched, rhythms crisply articulated. It was a performance that exuded a serene confidence and youthful athleticism – as well as a hope that as the distances between peoples continue to diminish, that their capacity for mutual understanding and respect continue to grow as a result. 

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