Before Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the world premiere of Franco Donatoni’s last score, he briefly addressed the audience. Donatoni, he said, had been the most influential of his teachers; he composed the work in the hospital where he would die soon after, at age 73 last year on Aug. 17; the piece’s title — “Esa (in Cauda V)” — and its dedication bore Salonen’s name. How, then, could he conduct in public so private a work?
The answer, Salonen continued, came from the work itself, its affirmation and its joyousness. Donatoni — whose fame rests on a small legacy of intricate, abstruse works little known outside his native Italy — created in this one 11-minute score a glorious orchestral romp.
Its harmonies are not easily untangled on first hearing; it’s the spectrum of sound, the manic clatter of xylophone and chimes, the menacing dark oratory of an oversized brass contingent (six horns, four trumpets, four trombones and tuba) that prove immediately winning. The other complexities will await future — and surely deserved — hearings. In its final measures, a small handful of instruments slide down the scale and out: a presentiment of Donatoni’s imminent end and, says Salonen, “the best of all possible ways to go.”
Donatoni had turned out four previous works titled “cauda,” referring to a particular medieval contrapuntal practice. Besides the “Esa” dedication, the letters of that name turn up in the piece as a kind of motto — E, E-flat (“Es” in German) and A. The work was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with funding in part by local patron Linda Attiyeh.
In an enlightened world, a difficult new work like this might deserve a repeat performance — an optional add-on at program’s end, say. But the pizzazz of Salonen’s Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which closed the concert — or the eloquence of Romanian pianist Radu Lupu’s Schuman Piano Concerto, which came midway — might have made for a hard act to follow. Oh well.