30 November 2012

Home and the World with Esa-Pekka Salonen

For the past three or so years - ever since Matias Tarnopolsky took over - Cal Performances has had an annual residency from a visiting orchestra. This year we had renowned composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Philharmonia Orchestra of London. I heard the last of their three concerts, the Mahler 9, but before that I heard the "composer portrait" concert dedicated to Salonen's music. He was of course there in person and Tarnopolsky interviewed him on stage during pauses in the intermissionless performance. The first part of their talk reflected some of the information also in the program book, but later on Salonen became more expansive and even offbeat.

There were four different pieces: knock, breathe, shine for solo cello (Kacy Clopton), Homunculus for string quartet (here the Calder Quartet), Dichotomie for solo piano (Gloria Cheng), and Mania for cello (Clopton again) and a small orchestra (here the University's Eco Ensemble). There was a nice variety of sound and style among the pieces, even when the underlying sensibility was clearly the same; there were several moments that sounded - I can only say "exotic," like moonlight on shifting desert sands. Salonen likes to play with the considerable virtuosity of his performers. In his remarks Salonen talked a bit about some of the initial conceptions or technical notions that expanded into the various pieces. Homunculus, for example, came from the early theory of human conception which held that each sperm contained a very miniature but fully formed man (with the implication that inside the tiny man's tiny sperm was an even tinier man with even tinier sperm containing an even tinier tinier man, and so on ad infinitum): so this quarter-hour for string quartet was meant to contain in compact form all the changes of sound and texture that you might find in a bigger piece. This was my favorite of the four pieces, though I enjoyed them all thoroughly. Also it was a pleasure to be in the midst of an attentive audience, after a series of recent evenings in which idiots kept pulling out their phones during the performance. You'd think that new music concerts would tend to draw only people who wanted to be there, but there was my first experience with the Eco Ensemble, that Boulez concert, where the audience was strangely awful.

During his remarks Salonen paid touching tribute to Elliott Carter, who had recently died just when we were all thinking he would outlive us all - Salonen mentioned giving an interview in which he talked about different schools and generations of composers, "and then there's always Elliott Carter" - just when there no longer was Elliott Carter. He also spoke of the need he had as a young composer to fight against the established models; in his case, he fought against Sibelius. Then one day in Milan after rehearsals he happened to come across a pocket score of one of the Sibelius symphonies, and he realized its greatness. He saw this as part of the normal process of maturation for a composer, in which you progress from rebel against the establishment to part of the establishment yourself; and that was part of his commitment to working with young composers and performers. He also mentioned his theory that (I think I have this right) originally language and music were the same thing, the basic and in-born means of communication (on the grounds that all human society creates music) and then gradually evolved in separate directions as language needed to create territorial and personal distinctions - so I guess the implication is that both are basic human urges; music is communal, language less so.

Sunday afternoon was the Mahler 9. Zellerbach is not the greatest concert hall for orchestras, but then neither is Davies and, at least on Sunday, the audience was amazingly quiet and attentive - there was some loud coughing towards the end, and as I heard someone in the audience say afterward, "They could at least try to stifle it a bit," and yes indeed, but a bit of coughing isn't too bad during ninety solid minutes of intense music. And when a woman in my row very briefly flipped through her program I realized that the program-flipping omnipresent at Davies was not taking place: people were actually sitting there listening to music. The magnificence of the performance deserved such attention. It seemed irrelevant to talk of the quality and skill of the orchestra, they moved so far beyond such virtues, bringing out the whole vast universal expanse of Mahler's final symphony. Worlds were created and passing away moment by moment, right in front of our ears.

At the end as he took his bows Salonen was visibly exhausted; nonetheless he came back after a short break and led the UC Berkeley student orchestra through a run-through of La Mer. (Such work with the students is an integral part of the orchestra residencies.) I thought about staying, but for various reasons decided against it. It might have been the perfect way to ease re-entry into our little world after the Mahler, but instead I plunged into the immediate shock of public transit.


Shushu said...

Very interesting! I read an interview with him a few years ago, and he talked about cultural introversion, giving this example: A Finnish introvert looks at his shoes when he talks to you; a Finnish extrovert looks at your shoes. I think of this when I listen to him conduct, but I'm not sure I've ever heard the pieces he's composed, as you describe.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

That is a funny line about the Finnish introvert. I'd heard it before but I'm trying to remember where -- possibly from Salonen in an interview at some point. His music is well worth checking out. His latest CD features his violin concerto -- I have the CD but haven't listened to it yet, but I heard the concerto at the Symphony a year ago.