Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue at Symphony Center, 2005, Wikimedia Commons

At the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, I experience my first opportunity to watch Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen in action, a renowned composer and conductor, characterized by restless innovation that makes him important in classical music. Salonen is principal conductor and artistic advisor of the Philharmonia Orchestra and conductor laureate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he was music director from 1992 until 2009.

From the program notes, I learn that Salonen "composes works that move freely between contemporary idioms, combining intricacy and technical virtuosity with playful rhythmic and melodic innovations. He has an extensive recording career. His first CSO performance was in 1988, Haydn's Symphony no. 78, Bartok's Piano Concerto no. 3 with Stephen Hough, and Nielsen's Symphony no. 4. His most recent CSO performance was in 2013, Sibelius's Pohjola's Daughter and Symphony no. 7, Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma, and Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini."

Orchestra Hall, Wikimedia Commons   Orchestra Hall, Wikimedia Commons

The program tonight started with Anna Clyne's »»rewind»», and wearing a black Nehru jacket, an animated Salonen waves his baton with the gusto of a flamboyant sword fighter, slashing and jabbing and whisking the orchestra along in dramatic fashion, followed by Bartók's Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin Op. 19 , which was more subdued. After intermission, the orchestra performed Four Legends from the Kalevala, Op. 22 by Salonen's countryman, Sibelius.

Born in Helsinki, Salonen, studied horn and composition at the Sibelius Academy. His first experience conducting was in 1979 with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, though he still thought of himself principally as a composer. In 1983, he replaced an indisposed Michael Tilson Thomas to conduct a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 3 with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London at short notice without having studied the score before that time, and it launched his career as a conductor. He was subsequently principal guest conductor of the Philharmonia from 1985 to 1994. Salonen was principal conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1984 to 1995. Alex Ross of The New Yorker said: "The Salonen era in L.A. may mark a turning point in the recent history of classical music in America."

Salonen and his wife, Jane Price (a former musician with the Philharmonia Orchestra), have three children: daughters Ella Aneira and Anja Sofia, and son Oliver.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) is one of the five American orchestras commonly referred to as the "Big Five." Founded in 1891, the Symphony makes its home at Orchestra Hall and plays a summer season at the Ravinia Festival. The music director is Riccardo Muti , who began his tenure in 2010.

Symphony Center is a music complex located at 220 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago's Loop area, and symphony banners can be seen everywhere along the streets. Symphony Center includes the 2,522-seat Orchestra Hall, which is quite beautiful and dates from 1904; Buntrock Hall, a rehearsal and performance space; Grainger Ballroom, an event space overlooking Michigan Avenue and the Art Institute of Chicago; Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center was designated a National Historic Landmark on April 19, 1994. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978.

Clyne initially drew attention for the way her music combined electronics and acoustic instruments - that, along with her passion for collaboration, quickly became her signature. But in »»rewind»», which is 7 minutes long and composed nearly a decade ago, she accomplished the same layering of different sound worlds by writing just for the instruments of the orchestra, and since then she has often gravitated away from incorporating electronics.

Clyne was born in London. She wrote her first fully notated piece, for flute and piano, at the age of eleven, but at the time, she had no thoughts of becoming a composer. Her parents listened to folk music and the Beatles-the world of the symphony orchestra, where she is now at home, was remote. Clyne studied cello at Edinburgh University and then moved to New York in 2002, with little more than her suitcase and her cello. There she began her routine of composing at night, supporting herself as a freelance cellist and with a series of day jobs. At twenty-three, she received a scholarship to study composition at the Manhattan School of Music, and her career as a composer soon took off.

From the program notes, here are her thoughts on »»rewind»»: "»»rewind»» is inspired by the image of analog videotape rapidly scrolling backwards with fleeting moments of skipping, freezing, and warping. The original version, for orchestra and tape, was composed in 2005 for choreographer and artistic director of the Los Angeles-based Hysterica Dance Company, Kitty McNamee. A distinct characteristic of McNamee's work is its striking and innovative use of physical gestures and movements that recur throughout the course of her work to build and bind its narrative structure. This use of repetitive gestures is utilized in the musical language and structure of »»rewind»»."

"The approach I used to compose »»rewind»» is very much derivative from my work with electro-acoustic music; primarily the layering of multiple sounds and textures to create one solid unit of sound. As you will hear, the strings are the driving force behind this music. I started by composing the entire framework in the strings. This structure stems from an alternating two-chord motif, heard within the opening measures of the work. Once I had this structure in place, I went back to the beginning and added layers in the other instrumental families. These range from long, sustained, and warping tones to punchy articulations."

"I wrote »»rewind»» while living in New York City, a city which is true to its legend as one that doesn't sleep. I worked on this piece at night, when the sounds of the city were very much alive in force. Something that I like about this piece is the way that the city crept into the music. I remember at one point, I was sitting at the piano playing through one of the faster sections when a van ripped down the adjacent road, blasting its siren, fading in pitch as it disappeared into the night. By coincidence, the pitch matched perfectly the section I was playing, and I added this siren into the horns-long notes that fell in pitch through the phrase."

Sibelius Four Legends from the Kalevala

Phillip Huscher, the program annotator for the CSO, provides wonderfully enriching material for the audience. Of Bartók, he suggests: "Bartok begins with the noise and frenzy of the urban landscape. (Late in his life, he admitted that New York City traffic frightened him terribly.) After the clarinet signals the first decoy game, a lewd old man is depicted by the sound of raucous trombone slides. The attack of the thugs brings a furious orchestral outburst. The second decoy game introduces a shy young man, accompanied by a gentle oboe solo. He dances with the girl, cautiously at first, then with unexpected passion. Again the thugs attack. For the third time, the clarinet announces a decoy game. At the mandarin's entrance, the trombones let out three shattering cries. The music stops except for two notes in the horns, sustained forever, it seems, like the mandarin's piercing gaze. A slow dance of seduction begins. A waltz starts, falters, and picks up again; a frantic chase ensues. The music builds to a fever pitch, pushed almost beyond the breaking point, and, although the story itself isn't over yet, the suite ends with music of breathtaking finality."

Of Sibelius, he says, "Sibelius writes music of extraordinary thrust, generated by the galloping rhythm suggested by the bassoon at the outset. Through the use of ostinato patterns and the continual ripple of sixteenth notes, he never lets the momentum flag. Neither of Sibelius's first two symphonies has a finale to match the excitement and suspense of this Kalevala music. Within a matter of years, he would leave the world of the symphonic poem behind and find ways to achieve comparable effects within the traditional form of the symphony, but he never surpassed the brilliant drama and color of the music he composed under the spell of the Kalevala."

Orchestra Hall, Wikimedia Commons
Chicago's Orchestra Hall, Wikimedia Commons

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