Esa-Pekka Salonen brings his organ concerto to Disney Corridor
Does last week’s news that Los Angeles Philharmonic Chief Executive Chad Smith will leave the orchestra to head the Boston Symphony, coming on top of Gustavo Dudamel’s announcement that he will become music director of the New York Philharmonic in 2026, create worrisome uncertainty for an otherwise successful orchestra? There was no sign Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen has returned this weekend to perform three major works by 20th and 21st century composers he excels in: Stravinsky, Bartók and, with the U.S. premiere of his latest work, Salonen. The orchestra sounded sensational. Salonen’s Sinfonia Concertante, a potent organ concerto, uniquely filled the hall and a listener’s spirit. On my way out, I kept overhearing: “Bring him back.”
Whether that could happen is anybody’s guess. Salonen is in his third season as music director of the San Francisco Symphony. When the L.A. job opens, it will have been 17 since Salonen served as music director here for his 17 historic years. But he has conducted the L.A. Phil nearly every year since making his U.S. debut with the orchestra in 1984 at age 26. Much about Thursday felt very familiar, but also different. He doesn’t know — and never has known — the meaning of old home week.
But Salonen does know his old home, having opened Disney Hall and been crucially involved in its building and acoustic design. It was almost exactly 20 years ago that he first tried out the hall during construction. (The 20th anniversary of the opening will be in October.) And he does think about the past. What makes that thinking important, though, is his way of filtering out nostalgia. The past sounds like discovery and somehow a presage of the future. It’s no coincidence that he happens to be a science fiction fan.
The program (there is one more performance Sunday) is bookmarked by the full ballet score of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” and Bartók’s suite from his ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin.” As story ballets, both are mysterious and mystical, nasty and poignant fantasy, and they are downright clinical in their examination of what it means to be human, be it from living puppets or a lifeless mandarin.
Investigation suits Salonen’s temperament. He is a rational, exacting conductor. Instrumental colors have a rich purity in his performances. Textures are exposed through transparency. Rhythm is treated as an essential life force. You can hear how music works when he conducts these scores, which he has a great many times. But he is also able to create a sense of immediacy that has become shocking in its vivid aliveness.
What proved different this time was the kind of intimacy that Salonen drew from the orchestra. A great hallmark of the vineyard-shaped hall was from Day 1 at Disney the closeness of audience and orchestra. The connection felt greater Thursday. Wondrous flute, clarinet, piano, trumpet solos were heard as though headphone-close. Passages of big tumult were bigger than ever adding to the impact of ballets that were products of a tumultuous decade, the first of the 20th century, “Petrushka” preceding World War I and “Mandarin” coming right after.
Written in 2022, during the pandemic, Salonen’s Sinfonia Concertante is a product of our own so-far-troubled decade and sounds like it was written for us here and now in Disney. When Salonen was last in L.A. to conduct his old orchestra, he included the premiere of Gabriela Smith’s “Breathing Spirits,” an organ concerto. No doubt the sound of the L.A. Phil, Disney Hall and its organ were in the composer’s head while writing his Sinfonia Concertante.
The concerto is being shared by two different organ soloists, Olivier Latry and Iveta Apkalna, who performed in Disney on Thursday (and who returns for a chamber music concert with members of the orchestra Tuesday). The concerto lasts 34 minutes and is in three movements — “Pavane and Drones,” “Variations and Dirge” and “Ghost Montage.”
Also during the pandemic, Salonen wrote a clarinet concerto, “Kinema,” a smaller-scaled score with string orchestra in five short movements, like scenes from a movie. This was originally meant to be his first film score, but Salonen has wryly said that when he found out that the movie would be 45% sex scenes, he didn’t feel quite up to it. He did, however, feel up to something romantic and relatively light in spirit.
The Sinfonia Concertante, is, on the other hand, boldly cinematic. The orchestra is big. The organ has a power all its own. Put them together and the sonic scale becomes monumental, which is why it is called a sinfonia concertante, more an combination of orchestra and organ than a pitting of soloist and ensemble, although it remains a concerto as well. The organist gets a workout, especially in cadenzas.
What particularly stands out is the way Salonen deals with the past, something he done many times. “LA Variations” written for the L.A. Phil in 1996, has what its composer calls “quasi-folk music,” a kind of folk music of the future, along with a formal chorale and canon, along with an homage to Sibelius. But all of that comes out sounding like music of the future.
The Sinfonia Concertante this time turns first to a pavane, the Baroque-style dance treated to constant variation both in the orchestra and the organ. Salonen’s melodies are quirky, never certain in their original form and made ever changeable. Many things can happen at once.
The slow middle movement with its dirge is the center of the gravity. A quiet siciliano in the organ becomes an orchestral climax of exceptional strength. The movement ends in a serene epilogue for the solo organ in memory of Salonen’s mother, who died during his composition of the work. He describes the effect as not meant to be sad but rather “like a big ship sailing away.” In fact, the epilogue sounds more ocean than ship, the sea as eternal life force.
The inescapable real world then invades Salonen’s reverie at the beginning of “Ghost Montage.” Organ riffs are inspired by, of all things, those played at NHL ice hockey games. Perotin, not an ice hockey player but the radical 13th century polyphonist, makes a riotous entrance, a reminder that in another of Salonen’s recent Perotin-originated pieces, “Saltat Sobrius” for chamber ensemble, its Latin title is taken from Cicero’s quotation, “No one dances sober, unless he is insane.”
The Sinfonia Concertante is sober and sane, but barely. It feels like it could go over the edge at any minute. What is old and familiar never really is. What is new seems to well up with ancient feeling and wisdom. Ghosts come and go, Stravinsky and Bartók among them. The sonic power comes from the ground up. Salonen has always loved super-low instruments and the organ gets to the bottom better than any, and it does so in Disney unlike anywhere else. Apkalna is a glamorous organist with a compelling technique, dazzling in virtuoso passages and a force of nature on the pedals. The L.A. Phil played the new score with the kind of spectacle and a knowledge of Salonen’s music unlikely to be elsewhere equaled.
I don’t know whether there’s any chance of bringing Salonen back. But bringing the Sinfonia Concertante home again will be a must.
‘Salonen conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic’
What: Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the U.S. premiere of his Sinfonia Concertante with organist Iveta Apkalna as soloist; program also includes ballets by Stravinsky and Bartok
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave.
Info: (323) 850-2000, laphil.com