A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Esa-Pekka Salonen / Photo courtesy of LA Phil

They say that you can never go home again, but 30 years after his U.S. conducting debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, now LA Phil Conductor Laureate, has come home again. He has moved back to LA after living in London for several years where he was principal conductor for the Philharmonia Orchestra of London. Even though Salonen has returned frequently to conduct his old orchestra, his first two series of concerts this year (see https://culturespotla.com/2014/10/review-salonen-returns-to-la-phil-with-janacek-saariaho-and-sibelius/) show Salonen as a new man.

Salonen scheduled only two works for the program on Saturday night: the Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466 by Mozart and the Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 (“Eroica)” by Beethoven. Pairing these works on the same program was probably no coincidence. First, both compositions seem to reflect anger or brooding on the part of their respective composers. The Mozart is only one of two of his piano concertos written in a minor key, and even though the final movement ends on a happier note, the rest of it is dark and brooding. It was said to be one of Beethoven’s favorite concertos to perform. Moreover, the triplet motif in the cellos and basses that opens the Mozart and is part of the main theme of the first movement is the central motif in the Marcia Funebre (funeral march) second movement of the “Eroica.”

The concert began with a performance of Mozart with the American pianist, Jeremy Denk, as soloist. This was a rather in-your-face performance with less dynamic range than one is used to in other renditions. While Denk was technically proficient, his performance was rather harsh, conveying Mozart’s anger and rage, but little of the gentleness written into the piece. Denk performed his own cadenzas, which were musically interesting, but like the rest of his performance, less lyrical. Salonen was an admirable accompanist in his attempt to match Denk’s interpretation.

Salonen’s performance of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony showed that not only can you go home again, but you can do so triumphantly. This was Salonen on steroids.

After intermission, Salonen strode on stage with a purpose, and even before the audience had finished applauding, he raised his arms for the two thunderous E flat chords that begin the symphony like canon blasts, the effect of which was not only to quiet the crowd, but also to announce that a new, more mature Salonen was back.

Of course those two E flat chords have become legendary in the classical music repertoire as Beethoven’s way of announcing to the world music such as it had never heard before. And, even though it has been 210 years since those chords were first heard, they still sound new and revolutionary.

Salonen didn’t hold back. After those two chords, he took off running with a rapid tempo and made what is already a turbulent movement sound even more so. Salonen began the second movement solemnly but, interestingly, sped up the C major trio  before returning to the original tempo and solemn procession of the funeral march. Although unusual, it was nevertheless an effective way to emphasize the gravity of the march itself. The lighter scherzo (third movement) with its hunting call for the three horns in the trio section, played perfectly by the LA Phil horns, was a nice break from the tempestuous first movement and grave second movement. And, almost without taking a breath, Salonen launched immediately and furiously into the Finale (Allegro molto), a vast landscape of theme and variations and fugues.

On the night after Halloween, Salonen was a monster — his performance of the “Eroica” shouted to the audience, “I bet you haven’t heard this before!” But he was sensitive as well, at times holding the strings back in order to better hear the woodwinds, which sometimes get short shrift by conductors in this symphony. Make no mistake about it, Salonen pulled out all the stops and left both himself and the audience breathless at the conclusion.

—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA

Salonen will conduct this concert again today at 2 p.m. For information about this and upcoming concerts, visit www.laphil.com.