NY Philharmonic: Salonen Violin Concerto with Leila Josefowicz

Tonight I attended the New York Philharmonic and heard the second of five scheduled performances of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto (2008-09) with soloist Leila Josefowicz.  I can only say “Wow”!  This is one terrific concerto, and I’m delighted to have heard it performed by the violinist for whom it was written with the composer – also one of the world’s leading conductors – on the podium.  In four inventive movements, this piece is full of innovative rhythms and harmonies, masterful orchestration, and enough invention to sustain rapt interest through more than half an hour.  Time to get the recording, stick it on my iPod, and become intimately familiar with this piece.

Salonen has his own individual compositional voice, but his wide-ranging experiences as a conductor certainly contribute to this intriguing work.  Prokofiev’s Violin Concerti are an influence here, certainly, as well as Bartok’s, but neither of those composers would have written this, because it is in the late 20th century to early 21st century tonal style of a piece that downplays traditional melody and instead emphasizes texture and dramatic contrasts.  In this sense, it crosses paths with the “spectral” school of composition, exemplified by the NYP’s recent composer in residence, Magnus Lindberg, a friend and colleague of Salonen, but Salonen’s music is more interesting to me than Lindberg’s, because, I think, he has a richer imagination.  I want to hear this again.

Leila Josefowicz was extraordinary and absolutely fearless in a piece that tests stamina and resiliency as well as technique.  When I mention the Prokofiev concerti as an influence here, I specifically point to the first two movements of the 1st Concerto and the finale of the second, where Prokofiev sometimes used the violin as close to a percussion instrument, and used rapid, repeated figurations at times to embellish the part.  Josefowicz was on top of every challenge, and clearly has this piece under her skin, playing it impeccably from memory (which is not usual when soloists play relatively new, complex modern works).

Anybody reading this shortly after posting should be aware that the performance will be repeated tomorrow (Nov. 1) at 11 am, Saturday (Nov 2) at 8 pm, and Tuesday (Nov. 5) at 7:30 pm.

This is not to slight the rest of the program, as Salonen and the orchestra gave us masterful renditions of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite to open the concert and Sibelius’ 5th Symphony to close it.  The Ravel was an appropriate lead-in for the violin concerto, and I heard that Ravel the orchestrator certainly had an influence on Salonen as well.  What impressed me about the Sibelius was actually a bit negative – I found myself reflecting that Sibelius’ music is much less eventful than Salonen’s.  The 5th Symphony is actually my least favorite of the seven Sibelius symphonies, as it is the most repetitious and long-winded, the most obvious in its broad effects to the extent of banality. . .  There are of course many fine things in it, but sometimes I think the composer could have used a good editor on this one.  Astonishingly, of course, he did subject the piece to two thorough revisions before publishing the final version.  I’ve heard Osmo Vanska’s recording of the original version, which was even longer and less structurally sound.  But give me the 4th or 6th any day in preference to the 5th and I’ll be well satisfied.  That said, as I mentioned at the start of this paragraph, the performance was excellent, with the principal horn Philip Myers, as the particular hero this evening.

And this was also a demonstration of the incredible depth in the Philharmonic.  Several principal players were not participating this week – the oboe, the flute, the new principal clarinet, trumpet – and others played only in the Sibelius – Mr. Myers, bassoon principal Judith LeClair.  But there was no falling off in excellence in the incredibly exposed instrumental writing of the Ravel – the assistant principals all came through brilliantly, and in Mr. Salonen’s concerto as well.  This orchestra is playing splendidly in its current incarnation, and the more-than-usual number of empty seats in the hall – probably attributable to the combination of Halloween parties tonight and the presence on the program of a contemporary piece, which tends to scare away older subscribers – was no comment on the excellence of the program.

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