Review: Salonen Conducts the Pines of Rome

April 29, 2019 | By Henry Schlinger | Category: Classical Music and Opera

LA Phil’s Conductor Laureate Esa-Pekka Solenen was still in town this past weekend from his two-week Stravinsky extravaganza to conduct another series of concerts featuring 20th-century works, including Ibéria by Debussy, Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand (with Igor Levit as soloist), Esa (In cauda V) by Franco Donatoni and The Pines of Rome by Respighi.

The original order was to have the Donatoni and Debussy in the first half followed by the Ravel and Respighi in the second half. But upon entering Disney Hall on Sunday, audience members found an insert in the program noting a change, placing the Debussy and Ravel in the first half and the Donatoni and Respighi in the second half. This made a lot more sense for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it put the two most crowd-pleasing pieces at the end of each half.

As we noted in our last review of Salonen’s Stravinsky performance, Salonen seems to be much more relaxed and emotive and his movements much more flowing and less rigid than we remember from his tenure as the Phil’s music director. He appears to be at a higher level in his conducting career. And it showed on Sunday.

Salonen began the concert with Debussy’s Ibéria, the second piece of his triptych called Images pour Orchestre. Ibéria evokes images of Spain, and Salonen’s interpretation was crisp and invigorating.

Up next was the single-movement Concerto for the Left Hand by Ravel. Probably everyone knows the story by now: that the pianist Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm in WWI and then commissioned various composers to compose concerti for the left hand. The most well-known was the Ravel, not only for its demands on the pianist but also for its sheer technique and musicality. The piece — dark and brooding along with Ravel’s exhilarating crescendos — is a 20-minute powerhouse.

The Russian-German pianist Igor Levit put all he had into this concerto. It is hard to imagine someone with only one arm playing it because, with two arms, a pianist can always use the right arm for balance or to hold on to the side of the piano, as Levit did, for particularly difficult passages. Nonetheless, Levit showed why he is one of the most exciting young (he’s 32) pianists of his generation.

The only problem, if there was one, was that at times the orchestra overshadowed the piano. It must be a tough chore to restrain such beautiful orchestral writing; on the other hand, one wonders what was missed in the piano part. No matter, it was a powerful performance by both soloist and orchestra.

But even better (for this reviewer, at least) was what Levit played for his encore. Instead of a predictable encore, he played Peace Piece by jazz pianist Bill Evans. I suppose it might have been somewhat predictable if one knows that Levit played it on his most recent recording “Life.” Nevertheless, for this reviewer it was the highlight of the concert. First, it seemed a fitting encore following the Ravel because by the time Ravel wrote this concerto and his Piano Concerto in G major, he had toured the United States and met George Gershwin. Thus, both concerti incorporated aspects of jazz improvisation that Ravel picked up in the States. Levit’s playing of the Evans was so light and delicate, at times it seemed as if the notes just drifted up from the piano into the sonosphere. It was truly peaceful.

After intermission, Salonen walked onstage, picked up a microphone and told the story of the genesis of the piece by Donatoni. Salonen was part of a group that received a grant from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation to commission a work from a contemporary composer. They agreed to ask Donatoni, with whom Salonen studied for two summers. Salonen approached Donatoni who agreed, but several months later Salonen got news that Donatoni had died. Then, about four months after that, he received the score of Esa in the mail. After contacting Donatoni’s widow, Salonen discovered that the composer was so frail in the last months before he died that he dictated the composition to his students from his death bed (a la the film Amadeus).

Salonen then described the metaphor he uses when thinking about the piece: a slot machine with stained glass windows in each of the slots and when the handle is pulled, the stained glass windows rearrange in different combinations. For Salonen, the piece is a combination of different groups of instruments continually rearranged to make the whole. The in cauda V part of the title indicates that it is the fifth (and last) in Donatoni’s in cauda cycle.

Thus, Salonen had a very personal and intimate knowledge of and connection to the piece. Who better, then, to provide a heartfelt and personal interpretation that must be considered definitive?

The concert concluded with the middle composition of Respighi’s three-part tribute to Rome, including Fountains of Rome (1916) and Roman Festivals (1928). The Pines of Rome (1924) is impressionistic symphonic writing at its best. And with its offstage brass (trumpets and horns), taped Nightingale singing at the end of the third movement, and over-the-top finale with the entire orchestra playing as loud as can possibly be, Salonen had the freedom to pull out all the stops. The result was a sonic extravaganza and a fitting conclusion to his month-long visit with the LA Phil.

At every concert, the LA Phil shows why it is one of the top orchestras in the country, and along with all the individual soloists in all four pieces, the orchestra played for its most recent past music director with energy and love, which is reflected in the quality of the music making.

—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA

Visit www.laphil.com.

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