Last weekend, in the middle of the Alagna circus, I was treated to a beautiful respite: a concerto on Saturday night, December 16, 2006 at Teatro Regio di Parma, situated about one-and-a-half hours via car from Milan center. The occasion was to watch Finnish Maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra.
Off to Parma! Teatro Regio di Parma is refreshing because it is finally an opera house in Italy that is found without taking one-hundred wrong turns down convoluted, seventeenth century sidewalks. It is ostentatiously situated on the right-hand portion of the main road; the first street you encounter when you enter the closed, turreted city.
Salonen started the evening with Haydn’s Symphony No. 7 in C major, "Le Midi". The core of orchestra on stage was two-dozen light strings, two bass/cello, two oboe, and one horn. Oh yeah...and a tiny tiny baby piano - the fortepiano – that I thought would be played by like a little baby bear cub in a Detroit Tigers baseball cap, or something equally absurd/adorable. Seeing such a small contingent of musicians, but hearing such an omnipresent sound was incongruent. The tone Salonen coaxed from the orchestra was gorgeous, light, and delicate, but powerful.
The next work was Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht Opus 4, which added a larger contingent of strings to the stage. Again, Salonen conducted deftly, with the same delicate, yet powerful tone. His conducting style was very polished. He swayed his body in very rhythmic, hypnotic swirls of motion that never appeared sloppy or careless. It was during the Schönberg that Salonen showed his talent at sustaining almost a whisper of pianissimo without letting the orchestra collapse. He can really tease-out a sustained breath of the orchestra that is just barely there, but is in perfect control. It was magnificent.
After the intermission, came Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (Quadri di una esposizione) [ed: orchestrazione Maurice Ravel]. What a mess. Okay, to be fair...not Salonen’s version. But P@E is just a chaotic jumble of instruments that makes me feel like I have Tourettes Syndrome.
Since I was seven-years-old, and dragged in white, baggy tights and faux-rabbit fur jacket to the New York Philharmonic’s Young People's Concerts by my parents, I’ve tried to avoid Mussorgsky’s P@E. DAMN YOU SALONEN! It is the underlying didactic nature of the work always has me cringing (btw, for any of you readers who used to attend the NYPYPC when little: for the “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks”, I clearly remember some very bootleg-looking white cue-cards, which were held by members of the orchestra, displaying very crude and basic magic-marker drawings of cracked eggs with chicken legs sticking-out. Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?)
Anyway, Salonen lead the Philharmonia wildly through Mussorgsky, but I felt that after the two previous works of heavy string action, he was not able to control the brass and percussion very well. The sound became a bit too bright and brash at times. But all in all, it was superb. Sadly, the audience lost its s**t at the applause and cheering afterwards, regardless of the fact that the Schönberg and Haydn were executed much more deftly.
The encore was announced by Salonen in very confident Italian, which he had learned twenty years ago when he lived in Milan, studying with late Italian composer Niccolò Castiglioni.
The first encore was Sibelius’ Valse Triste, which was fitting, seeing that Salonen graduated from the Sibelius Academy with a degree in horn and conducting. The second encore was Stravinsky’s Galop. yay. weeeee!
(btw, for all those that expressed interest in the hawt, blond cellist stading by il Maestro, the Philharmonia might have some clues...)
(leaving/entering the city of Parma through the fortifications is pretty kewl)