I swear Esa-Pekka Salonen was the fifth Beatle, with his thick mane of floppy chestnut hair and black Nehru jackets. Last night's Hear & Now placed him and pianist Yefim Bronfman Front & Center lol of NYC's Avery Fisher Hall, where he was chatted-up before the exciting performance of his recently-penned, recently world-debuted (and untitled) piano concerto.
Host Steven Stucky sat the two artists down for a didactic roundtable discussion at the front of the stage, while the orchestra silently looked-on from behind, practicing their fingering. IRL BF4E&E Bronfman and Salonen bantered well, with Bronfman cracking his dry, deadpan wit at almost every utterance. [Salonen wrote the concerto specifically for Bronfman, "My Piano Concerto is dedicated to my friend Yefim Bronfman, one of the great musicians of our time."] An example of Bronfman’s humor: Stucky began describing the second orchestral interlude in Movement I, abstractly named, "The elegance of very large animals". To that, the stout Bronfman riled Stucky by saying, "Are you talking about me?" loalz.
Addressing the audience, Salonen spoke in a total San Fernando Valley accent, peppering his sentences with "fer shur" and "grody" every two seconds. This current stint with the LA Philharmonic has indebted irrefutable damages. ATTN ADMINS THIS IS A JOKE.
ok ok, j/k, fo'reals: Salonen speaks with a clear accented-Finnish/British-formed speech, and relayed that creating his Piano Concerto was a long, slow, and difficult process...as the very idea of writing such a piece was daunting. As Salonen spoke, Bronfman continued his shtick, regarding the audience as part of his own private (idaho), running joke. To counteract Bronfman's dry humor, Salonen also has "teh funny", which appears in guise of not taking himself very seriously, played-off with a very aloof, flippant, sarcastic tone. He’d make a great blogger.
As Salonen composed his Piano Concerto, he would send the cadenze bit by bit to Bronfman, who would eagerly check his correspondence with the composer for new developments.
Salonen then spoke about Movement II, and called it "cybernetic, synthetic folk music"...homage to Polish science-fiction "Solaris" writer Stanislaw Lem ( omg Salonen is such a sci-fi nerd). Salonen went on about the orchestration of "bird-robots". Salonen, water you tolkien about?
Lastly, Salonen said he loves the viola (which reminds OC of her other most favorite conductor ev4r, so Salonen is now basically untouchable...
Onto the concerto! Q(o_oQ)
Salonen and Bronfman were off tha heezy! This concerto was incredibly difficult, layered, complex, and furious. Salonen has got mad money $kill$. It's was a mixture of trippy, space-age, Wagnerian, Shostakovichian, new-age motifs. Movement I began with percussion, which then turned to the strings. I wasn’t really feeling the congas, tom-toms, and log drums, tho'.
Through Movement I, Bronfman's cadenze (cadenzas) were powerful and gorgeous. It was a frenetic, extremely fast movement; very complex, colorful, and arching. There were moments of pure brilliance, but in-between those moments, your brain was trying to wrap itself around the tempi and keys…although the congas can really suck it.
There were additional moments of brilliance when soloists would echo and mimic Bronfman: trumpet echoing piano, or imitating strings. However, there were passages that were too over-worked: towards the end of the movement, the orchestra and piano give way to a legato note held by the strings for like 1,000 measures. It was just too tenuous.
Movement II was beautiful, bright, and lovely. Bronfman was on point. Salonen was not terribly keen to utilize a heavy-string presence throughout the concerto, but when he orchestrates with them, he creates a gorgeous sound. The main problem was that the moments of brilliance were a bit far & few in-between. During the last portion of Movement II, the entire orchestra reinvented the original melody, which faded beautifully into a very lovely diminuendo.
Movement III was busy and gorgeous. There were great moments of clarity and brightness. I heard homage to Lenny a few times via the brass. The final crescendo was chilling. This was my favorite movement of the three. Unfortunately, I had to skip-out before the final Q&A, for an unchangeable, slow-moving dinner at one of the Columbus Circle restaurants.
Final thoughts: I just don't see how anyone else can ever successfully conduct Salonen’s Piano Concerto, aside from Salonen himself. It would simply fall apart or collapse. It is just too fast, too disjointed, too bright, and frankly, too complex. I realized that for Salonen -- the clever, independent, loner -- this was probably highly intentional.
Opera Chic doesn't want to get preachy here (zzzzz), but if you are able to make it out of the house in NYC’s bitterly cold winter, I can't think of any good reason to miss a composer performing his own work LIVE. I mean, in the day of Mozart, do you think people were all like, "Sorry herr Mozart…me and the wife can't make it to the Burgtheater for your Nozze tonight. There's a new HD 'CSI: New York' on tonight and we really want to watch it on our big-a$$ plasma."