Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"Into the Atmosphere" (on the LA Philharmonic performances of Debussy, Lindberg, and Bartok)

into the atmosphere
by Douglas Messserli

Claude Debussy Nocturnes, Magnus Lindberg Cello Concerto No. 2, Béla Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen / the performance I saw was on October 20, 2013 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall

On Sunday, October 20, my companion Howard and I attended a concert at the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall which was part of the ongoing celebration of the Hall’s 10th anniversary.

     Conducted by the Finnish composer and conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, former music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 17 years from 1992-2009, the works performed were by composers Salonen championed throughout his tenure.       

      Beginning with Claude Debussy’s atmospheric tone-poem, composed in response to paintings by the American artist James McNeill Whistler—which together were titled, “Nocturnes.” Debussy’s Nocturnes, in general are characterized by the titles of the work’s three sections, “Nuages” (Clouds), “Fétes” (Festivals), and “Sirénes” (Sirens). Like the slow motion of passing clouds, the first section begins with a solemn and shifting movement of chords, which in the “Festivals” section is transformed into a celebratory, dazzlingly series of rhythms. “Sirens,” which features the sighing-like cries of a woman chorus (in this case the women of Los Angeles Master Chorale, which regularly performs with the LA Philharmonic) reminds one, inevitably, of the rhythmic sea waves combined with the entrancing sounds of mythical temptresses. Indeed, the entire work has a feeling of a fluid temptation of the listener, luring him or her into the work. The Debussy piece, in nearly any well-performed version, is a beautiful composition, but in the hands of Salonen it seemed crisper and a bit more muted than more romantically conceived renditions, permitting us to more clearly hear the tonal interchanges between oboes, English horn, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, trombones, percussion instruments and, most importantly in this piece, strings.

      Orchestral interchange might also be a key word in describing the world premiere of Salonen’s friend and colleague, Magnus Lindberg’s Cello Concerto No. 2. Although some might describe the work by the contemporary composer as being a bit retrograde in its highly melodic score, it worked quite brilliantly, with its antiphonal relationship between the cello and orchestra, with the other works on the program. Bringing out the deep tones august tones of the work, cellist, Anssi Karttunen, who has regularly worked the composer as well as with the conductor, performed with the abbreviated orchestra (with only 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, trombone and strings) impeccably unflappable.

      So too might the third and final piece, Béla Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta be described as both atmospheric and, and several points, antiphonal. But here, even more than in the “Festivals” section of Debussy’s work and in certain passages of Lindberg’s composition, the startling rhythms of Bartok’s Hungarian and Bulgarian influenced dances dominate, at moments deliriously rising only to collapse into the calm interchanges of the piano and celesta before all war breaks out again between oppositional strings.

      All of these works seem at moments, quite episodic, even though clearly the Bartok work is encased in near mathematically-created structures. But Salonen’s calm and firm conducting elicits from the various “parts” of these works a stunning sense of a rich unity.

      The substantially-filled hall applauded enthusiastically for several returns of the director and bows of the orchestral players.

Los Angeles, October 23, 2013