Years before he entered the roster of internationally acclaimed symphonic conductors, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Esa-Pekka Salonen had already earned notice as a serious composer, one of a group of young Finns anxious to escape from under the shadow of their famed conservative ancestor Jan Sibelius and go their own innovative way. His two pathways merged at the Music Center last week, as he led his assembled forces in the world premiere of his “L.A. Variations,” commissioned by and dedicated to the Philharmonic, to the kind of cheering standing ovation usually reserved for flamboyant soloists in familiar concertos.
Any full-time conductor with composing aspirations faces a clear and present danger: how to purge both the conscious and subconscious brain from memories of other people’s music, to avoid turning out mere pastiches.
In Salonen’s new 19-minute piece, as in his best-known earlier scores (several of them, including a cheeky concerto for alto saxophone, available on the Finlandia label), faint reminiscences from his own musical heritage do surface fleetingly from time to time. Several whirring, swirling, buzzing clusters of string tone, for example, suggest the manner of Sibelius, but propelled with a furious, exhilarating energy far beyond the reach of the older master.
That energy, in fact, imparts itself to both players and audience. Stylistically, Salonen’s music takes no prisoners. Its sense of harmony stems from an intricate interweaving of chords built out of all 12 notes of the familiar scale – plus some imaginative collaboration from synthesizers that stretch the harmonic bounds even farther. Wisps of folk-like melody surface and disappear, almost subliminally. Now and then the fury subsides, and a gleaming moment of old-fashioned harmony seems almost like a dissonant intruder. The ending – muted strings and a piccolo at the quiet edge of audibility – summons visions of distant stars.
In short, the still boyish-looking Salonen, 39, has accomplished a remarkable synthesis of his bipolar talents: He has composed a piece that can challenge orchestral players with music both fearsome and gratifying, and can reach audiences as well with its creative energy.
“I’ve been with the orchestra 26 years,” said Philharmonic cellist Daniel Rothmuller after the concert, “and I’ve never seen this kind of ovation for the premiere of a brand-new piece.”
Overall, in fact, it was a night of sheer triumph for Salonen, who framed his own work with two vocal scores set firmly into his range of sympathy: Debussy’s cool green-and-lavender “La Demoiselle Elue” and Stravinsky’s monumental oratorio “Oedipus Rex,” with Jorma Silvasti and Monica Groop as the tortured marital-cum-parental pair, and the formidable Maximilian Schell as narrator.
On nights like this the sometimes-creaky institution of the symphony orchestra stirs to brimming life.