Thursday, February 24, 2011

(Is it) Esa-Pekka Salonen Conducting the Rite of Spring (?)

In all seriousness. EPS's videotaped performance with the LA Phil at Gehry Hall's inauguration was the single greatest performance I've ever heard of this work. We haven't heard anyone hold the Tchaikovskian volcano side of Stravinsky in such perfect balance with the Debussyian rigor (and no, that's not a contradiction) since Markevitch, at the very least. Perhaps you have to go as far back as Monteux for an equivalent. But Esa-Pekka received far better playing than either ever received in this piece from any orchestra. If the Rite of Spring is no longer a daunting challenge, it is because musicians of the postwar generation made modernism a priority to teach. And no musician displays those priorities to better effect than Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Part of what makes Salonen work so well in a piece like Sacre is because he's an extremely visceral musician, but without ever being an overtly emotional one. He is a Karl Ancerl for our time. His music-making is tremendously exciting, but he rarely sounds as though he has an investment in what he's conducting. It's not the best combination for Schubert or Brahms, but it makes him a conductor born for Stravinsky.

Which is what made his latest broadcasted performance of Sacre with the Philharmonia such a shock. It was, to be sure, the Rite with the excitement that only a master of Stravinsky could bring. But it was Russian to the core: brash, a free hand with tempo changes, and with subtlety almost completely removed from the equation. Frankly, I would have guessed that Valery Gergiev or Gustavo Dudamel had replaced him in an act of podium stealth. This sounded like a Rite of Spring for a midlife crisis, which for all I know, it may be. It was a completely uncharacteristic performance for Esa-Pekka, drastically different enough to sound as though he was trying to banish memories of what his old interpretation sounded like, and perhaps with it some memories of past glories.

EPS handled his LA Philharmonic transition as classily as any conductor ever handled such a messy event - and far better than Ernst Fleischmann handled his hiring. He announced his retirement years in advance, thereby allowing the orchestra to snap up Gustavo Dudamel before he became The Dude. But I have doubts Salonen should ever have left LA, and I'd bet anything that Esa-Pekka shares those doubts. Dudi, if he sticks around LA, could bring things to LA that Salonen never could (what those things are is for another day). But Salonen had already been there for nearly twenty years and created what is arguably the greatest orchestra for 20th century music the world has ever known. Who knows what EPS could have done with another twenty years in LA? He said that he was leaving to concentrate on his skillful but by no means masterpiece-level compositions. I thought it was a mistake, but I certainly believed him. It was less than a year later that we heard that Esa-Pekka was to succeed Christoph von Dohnanyi at the Philharmonia in London. It was by no means disastrous news, Salonen had nearly become director the Philharmonia twice or three times over and his schedule was as free as his compositions would allow. But why was this necessary? EPS has nothing to prove as a conductor, he could have been the youngest of the world's conductor laureates: an honored guest for orchestras around the world. All this served to do is distract from him developing as a composer, an avocation for which he certainly does have promise. Lesser composers than he have shown genius after fifty. But instead, he's just another moonlighting conductor with an orchestra he doesn't really need and probably no longer has thethe free time to properly hone his craft as a composer.

In any event, one day I don't doubt I'll be talking about Salonen's Bartok too. In this broadcast, a superb Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was preceded by a tepid Cantata Profana (an absurdly undervalued choral work). Salonen is one of the great conductors of an exceptional generation that is only now reaching its prime. He's not a 'warm' conductor, and if the piece doesn't look interesting in the score he probably won't do as well with it as Ivan Fischer or Manfred Honeck. But he has a gift altogether rarer than his contemporaries. He is a complete musician with a chance to revive the old model of the composer who performs. If classical music wants to be healthy, then we need many more people like Esa-Pekka. And we can only hope that he keeps developing as a composer, it'll be a victory for us all if he does.

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