Mahler, Rachmaninov, Bernstein, Boulez. These are the past luminaries who mastered the duality of being both conductor and composer. Esa-Pekka Salonen has firmly established his place in that distinguished tradition. His guest appearances on the Chicago Symphony podium are predictably high points of each season, and he has often used them as a forum to introduce an entry from his captivating catalogue of compositions. The Cello Concerto, written for Yo-Yo Ma, received its much-anticipated world première Thursday night with its dedicatee. A joint commission of the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Barbican and Elbphilharmonie, it will receive its first New York hearing as soon as next week, and at the European venues shortly thereafter as part of the NY Phil’s upcoming tour. Salonen himself is conducting only the Chicago performances, yielding the reins to Alan Gilbert for the remainder.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Chicago Symphony © Anne Ryan
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Chicago Symphony
© Anne Ryan

The Cello Concerto is the third major work in the genre from Salonen’s pen within the decade, following up on the Piano Concerto (2008, written for Yefim Bronfman) and the Violin Concerto (2011, written for Leila Josefowicz), both of which he has conducted here. It reportedly had a gestation period of two years, and additionally draws on material from his earlier work for unaccompanied cello, ...knock, breathe, shine…  Salonen utilized the stage reconfiguration to provide a spoken introduction to the work, a helpful roadmap in unfamiliar territory.

He described the first movement as “stylized chaos”, and it almost overwhelmed in its dense and murky textures, ingeniously orchestrated with a conductor’s insight to the mechanics of the orchestra. Salonen further suggested the metaphor of a comet whereby the solo cello represented the comet’s laser-focused trajectory, and the remainder of the orchestra fanned out to form its widespread tail. There was indeed a certain epic, larger than life quality to the movement, as if truly written on a cosmic scale. Ma’s solo entrance was one of relative simplicity, perhaps in attempt to clarify the surrounding chaos. Deeply expressive, Ma often reached high into his instrument’s upper boundaries in a "music of the spheres" effect and was particularly affecting when in dialogue with the principal winds.

Beginning brashly, the second movement quickly became a much sparser affair and introduced an electronic layer, in which several of Ma’s solo passages were processed in real time and replayed through the sound system in a continuous loop. The sound design was done by Ella Wahlström, who operated the controls from one of the boxes. I tend to be skeptical of such practices as the end result is all too often gratuitous, but here the effect was really quite remarkable, with Ma seemingly in a spectral discourse with himself. It often pushed the limits of audibility with the dynamic level down to pppp, but after a series of downward glissandi in the solo cello, the orchestra swelled to a climax to bridge the third and final movement attacca.

Esa-Pekka Salonen and Yo-Yo Ma with the Chicago Symphony © Anne Ryan
Esa-Pekka Salonen and Yo-Yo Ma with the Chicago Symphony
© Anne Ryan

Ma negotiated the complex contrapuntal writing with the utmost clarity, and in due course the orchestration became more colorful than the preceding movements could have prepared one for, from the extensive percussion battery inclusive of maracas as well as a set of bongos and congas played by Cynthia Yeh (with some sections inviting her to improvise), to the shrill sounds of John Bruce Yeh’s E-flat clarinet. Following a virtuosic cadenza, Ma’s cello line grew higher and higher, finally landing at a stratospheric altitude, augmented by an otherworldly echo in the electronica.

The orchestra’s recent attention to John Adams is fitting given that the composer recently celebrated his 70th birthday, and in addition, his son Samuel is currently one the two Mead Composers in Residence (having a world première on tap for next week under Riccardo Muti).  Slonimsky’s Earbox made for a thrilling opener in its first CSO performance. The 1995 composition was a turning point in Adams’ compositional development, marking a departure from traditional minimalism as he experimented with more complex textures. Its opening was the musical equivalent of drinking from a firehose, the full force of the orchestra pouring from the stage with vigor. The instrumentation created a sheen of almost blinding brightness in this virtuosic tour de force.

Stravinsky’s Petrushka, presented in its 1947 revision, rounded off the evening in the best way possible. From its technicolor opening, the performance was crisp and commanding, Stravinsky’s idiosyncratic cast of characters coming to life with vivid realism. The highlights were many: the bold playing of pianist Patrick Godon, the humorous interjections in the contrabassoon from Miles Manner, the silvery flute of Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, and the piquant bitonalities to represent the title character’s conflicted duality. Perhaps most striking, however, were the clarion solos from Thomas Hooten, principal trumpet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic – Salonen’s erstwhile ensemble.