Franco Donatoni has always been the odd man out of post-WWII Italian music; in his native country he wasn’t as influential as Berio, as revered as Nono, as coolly idiosyncratic as Maderna. But Donatoni has been, among the twentieth century’s composers, the greatest alchemist: the composer himself explained his creative process as being similar to alchemy – always ready to surprise you, to create the most beautiful transparent sounds, the quickest changes of pace, of mood. He was the Harry Potter of classical music, ready to turn children’s voices into a flight of hummingbirds, a single saxophone into a scary monster, a double bass into the sound of the end of the world.
It does not surprise that so many composers – among them Magnus Lindberg, the late great Giuseppe Sinopoli who is still missed so deeply, Esa-Pekka Salonen – have been Donatoni students in their youth. Donatoni, his former pupils are happy to tell you, was a generous teacher, full of humor and surprises as his own music was.
Tuesday night at Teatro alla Scala, Donatoni’s city, Milan, had the chance to listen to his final work, commissioned by Salonen in his LA Philharmonic days, a piece that debuted after the composer’s death in the summer of 2000. Its title? “Esa (In Cauda V)”. A work for orchestra that astonishes you with its clarity, its force, the transparency of the orchestration – with the simple, stunning beauty of its voice. Because in Donatoni’s music, everything reminds you of the human voice – Donatoni was one of the most human composers, too. Donatoni’s heartbeat is all over “Esa”, as is his sense of humor, his joy – and this is all more heartbreaking when you think that the piece was completed by Donatoni when he lay dying in Milan’s Niguarda hospital, with his assistants taking dictation. Salonen deserves so much credit for so many things, but his generosity in promoting Donatoni’s work is among his greatest merits: he conducted the piece at Scala Tuesday night in its Italian premiere the way you might imagine someone would conduct his father’s work, with tenderness and admiration and a son’s love. Salonen said back in 2000, before the piece’s premiere in LA, that he considered “Esa” to be "my old teacher's message to me, something like 'Carry on, son, it will be OK.'" The Finnish conductor returned from intermission to conduct the work, wielding his baton that he had left behind for the first half.
One is grateful that Franco and Esa, father and son, shared their talent and mutual admiration and love with the audience last night. It turned Milan’s gloomy rainy winter into spring.
Esa-Pekka Salonen, one of our greatest interpreters of contemporary music, with Filarmonica della Scala chose the remainder of the program with Castiglioni, Ravel, and Stravinsky and set the night on fire in a huge success that demanded half-a-dozen curtain calls.
Chestnut brown hair, immaculate black Nehru and shiny black shoes, baton in hand (although sometimes not) Esa-Pekka led the Filarmonica in a diverse performance, alternating between drizzle and thunder in his interpretations of avant-garde heavy-hitters, never shying away from the most intricate or ballooning passages.
Niccolò Castiglioni's Sinfonia con giardino's pared-down orchestra opened the program. Tickled, tinkling metallic notes from the harpsichord and piccolo marked the piece, soft whispers of bird calls squeezed from the instrumentalists. A diverse and unpredictable sound, which called for half-a-dozen types of xylophones and timpani. A striking sound, Esa-Pekka without his baton, in front of a score that was almost as big as him, led the orchestra with liquid sways of his wrists in a symphony of chaos.
Maurice Ravel's Ma mère l'oye glided and glistened, delicately controlled by the conductor's hands. Esa-Pekka allowed the music float into such openly-expressed phrases, each movement its own idea full of light and elegance.
Although Donatoni was the highlight, Esa-Pekka's Stravinsky (via The Firebird) is a thing of beauty. ESP's unmatchable talent is that he can digest modern works without the imprint of classical music staining the interpretations. It's the classical riot of avant garde music that's been stripped of over-compensation. Unaffected and thoroughly modern. So magical, delicious, orgasmic and pure. He makes the music organic, allows it to breathe like the transcendent art form it is. He takes a work that you've heard a mllion times before before and makes it a transformative experience. Effectively moving the brass into Palco Reale (the central, royal box) in an answer and call conversation of horns.
With Esa-Pekka Salonen, the music simply is.