Helsinki. Finnish National Opera and Ballet. 11-VIII-2017. Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): Le Tombeau de Couperin; Esa-Pekka Salonen (b. 1958): Cello Concerto; Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): Perséphone. Nicolas Altstaedt: cello; Virva Kuusi: solo percussion; Andrew Staples: tenor; Pauline Cheviller: speaker; Orchestra, Chorus, and Children’s Chorus of the Finnish National Opera and Ballet, conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen.
At least on this first hearing, Salonen’s new Cello Concerto seemed confident and uncertain at the same time.
This evening’s concert marked the opening of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s second season as Artist-in-Association with the Finnish National Opera and Ballet. It seemed only appropriate that the program literally played to all of Salonen’s strengths: Ravel, Stravinsky, and of course, himself.
The program began with a Ravel staple, Le Tombeau de Couperin. Immediately apparent from the opening moments was the effortless, flowing precision that Salonen brought to Ravel’s busy woodwind writing. The strings in the second movement were lilting but also marked. In addition to a laser-like focus on orchestrational detail throughout the work, Salonen did not shy away from bringing out the aching beauty found in the first and third movements.
Following the Ravel came the Finnish premiere of Salonen’s most recent large-scale composition, his Cello Concerto. Written for the great Yo-Yo Ma, the concerto had its world premiere this past March with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the composer.
Each new work of Salonen’s bears his unmistakable soundworld while also sounding fresh and unfamiliar. Such was the case in the Cello Concerto; elements from previous works were evident, but new expressive worlds were explored.
The concerto opened with a dense, slowly rippling orchestral tutti, evoking countless stars in a dark night sky. The solo cello entered, doubled in unison with section cellos. The first half of the movement was gently meandering, perhaps reminiscent of the final movement of Salonen’s Violin Concerto but without a sense of leave-taking. The music at times wandered into somewhat Ravelian quasi-Orientalisms. The movement’s second half featured rapid virtuosic passagework for the soloist.
The second movement began with a startlingly emphatic full-orchestra flourish that gradually receded in waves and heaves. Similar to the first movement, the solo line was searching and exploring, this time supported by amplified loop effects and gentle woodwind responses. The third movement featured some of Salonen’s typically impossible virtuosic fireworks, accompanied by a prominent part for solo bongos and congas, here confidently played by Virva Kuusi.
While Salonen’s current style is certainly accessible on the surface, I personally find that his recent works have only become rewarding after several encounters; this was the case for me with his Violin Concerto and Karawane. At least on this first hearing, the Cello Concerto seemed confident and uncertain at the same time; it seemed as if Salonen knew exactly what he wanted to do but was unsure of where to go. Nicolas Altstaedt, despite being preceded by the formidable Yo-Yo Ma, clearly has made this work his own; his performance was effortless, powerful, and expressive.
Salonen closed the program with a performance of Stravinsky’s melodrama Perséphone. Consistent with the first half of the program, Salonen infused this work with clarity and precision, which was appropriate for Stravinsky’s dramatically effective (yet in my opinion curiously objective) score. Soloists Andrew Staples and Pauline Cheviller were assured and expressive in their respective roles.
Credit photo: Esa-Pekka Salonen © Minna Hatinen