A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Esa-Pekka Salonen / Photo Credit: Benjamin Suomela HS

On Oct. 5, the former music director and conductor laureate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic was in town to conduct his current orchestra, London’s Philharmonia Orchestra. But they didn’t perform at Salonen’s old home, Walt Disney Concert Hall. They performed in the beautiful Valley Performing Arts Center on the campus of California State University, Northridge.

And the program was a doozy, featuring two monumental symphonies: the revolutionary Symphony No. 3 in E flat major Op. 55, “Eroica,” by Beethoven and the lush Symphony No. 5, also in E flat major, Op. 82 by Sibelius.

The key of E flat major has often been associated with bold, heroic music as evidenced in the “Eroica” by Beethoven. But majestic is also often an adjective that comes to mind, for example, in such works as the three Mozart horn concerti, Haydn’s trumpet concerto, Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 and Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben,” to mention a few. There are certainly moments in Beethoven’s Third (e.g., the coda of the first movement and the fourth movement) and in Sibelius’ Fifth (e.g., in the first and third movements) that qualify as majestic.

Before discussing the performance, I should point out Salonen’s unusual arrangement of the orchestra on stage. For both works, Salonen had, from left to right in the back row, the horns, clarinets, bassoons and trumpets (and trombones and tuba for the Sibelius), with the flutes and oboes in a row in front of them. It’s not clear whether this had anything to do with the stage layout at VPAC or Salonen’s preference. There were also four large kettle drums behind the horns and woodwinds, and at the beginning of the Beethoven, there was no timpanist leading this reviewer to wonder whether they were going to perform something without timpani before the Beethoven. But when Salonen raised his arms for the first two E flat major claps, it was clear that there were timpani. But where? It turns out that for the Beethoven Salonen used the smaller timpani that were more common in Mozart and Beethoven’s time and he placed the timpanist, who used wooden mallets, on the floor in the midst of the orchestra.

From the opening bars of the Eroica, Salonen made it clear that this was no ordinary interpretation. In many ways, Beethoven’s Third Symphony can be said to have initiated the Romantic movement in classical music, and Salonen exploited this in his interpretation by his liberal use of tempi and dynamics. For example, in parts of both the Beethoven (and the Sibelius), Salonen had the orchestra play so quietly that they were barely discernable, only to be followed by either a rapid or gradual crescendo. He used this device to great effect.

Salonen had the orchestra play the first movement at a typical speed, but the fourth movement was noticeably fast. The orchestra, in particular the principal flutist, nimbly kept up. In the second movement, Salonen had the orchestra play the funeral march slowly, but then upped the tempo in the Trio when the key changes from C minor to C major. It was an unusual move, and potentially risky, but it worked.

Overall, it was a thrilling and engrossing performance of perhaps the greatest symphony ever written.

Unlike Beethoven’s Third, which revolutionized the symphony and, indeed, all of Western music, the Sibelius Fifth was composed at a time when music was undergoing a different revolution from the tonal to the atonal. Also although Sibelius’ Fourth symphony seemed to be more influenced by this trend, the Fifth was more tonal, similar to his Third symphony. But there is just the right amount of atonality in the Fifth to make the tonal parts that much more so.

If you don’t know by now, Salonen is the preeminent interpreter of Sibelius, and his definitive performance of the Fifth was revelatory. The orchestra was an extension of Salonen, and Salonen was an extension of Sibelius himself. The Philharmonia also showed why they are one of the world’s great orchestras with superb playing by all sections and individuals. The string playing was lush, and the horns, especially in the final movement of the Sibelius (and in the third movement of the Beethoven), were glorious.

After a few curtain calls, also during which the orchestra applauded Salonen, he returned to the stage and had the string section play a spirited excerpt from Stravinsky’s “Apollo” ballet.

It was nostalgic for LA concertgoers to hear the former music director of the LA Phil in his new capacity and, from all appearances, he is better than ever.

—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA

For information about upcoming performances at VPAC, visit https://www.valleyperformingartscenter.org.