A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Esa-Pekka Salonen / Photo by Mathew Imaging

Finnish conductor and composer and Conductor Laureate of the LA Phil Esa-Pekka Salonen returned to Disney Hall on Sunday to conduct an all-Sibelius program consisting of Finlandia, Six Humoresques, and the Symphonies No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104, and No. 7 in C major, Op. 105.

Salonen has the music of Sibelius flowing through his veins and is arguably the premier Sibelius interpreter in the world. Fortunately for audiences in LA, he has bestowed his Sibelius interpretations on us several times. In our review of Salonen’s performance of Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite with the LA Phil at Disney Hall in October of 2014, we said that Sibelius “could not have had a more fitting advocate than his fellow countryman Salonen” (see https://culturespotla.com/2014/10/review-salonen-returns-to-la-phil-with-janacek-saariaho-and-sibelius/). And we called the fifth symphony last year with the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Valley Performing Arts Center “definitive” and “revelatory” (see https://culturespotla.com/2016/10/review-esa-pekka-salonen-and-the-philharmonia-orchestra-perform-at-vpac/).

Sunday’s Sibelius program was no different. The program opened with a rousing performance of the symphonic poem, Finlandia. It is well known that Sibelius’ goal in writing Finlandia (which went by other, less nationalistic names to avoid Russian censorship) was to write something that would rouse Finnish patriotism. And since its composition in 1899, it has become synonymous with just that. Salonen seemed to be calling on that nationalism by exploiting the opening motif for maximum effect and loudness with the sforzando sounding like a retort from a gun. Salonen’s interpretation was so startling that everyone in the audience felt like cheering for Finland when it was over. Interestingly, Salonen used a score for Finlandia (one would have thought that he has probably conducted this piece since he was a child and knew it by heart), and, indeed, for all the works on the program.

The urgency of Finlandia was countered with the calm of the opening of the sixth symphony, which may be the least performed of his seven symphonies. As with many of Sibelius’ symphonies, the sixth hints of stark landscapes and bleak Scandinavian winters, and that’s how it felt inside Disney Hall on a spring day in LA. Salonen’s interpretation was cerebral, but still moving.

The second half of the concert opened with the Six Humoresques with LA Phil Concertmaster Martin Chalifour as the soloist. These delightful little pieces that all end on a musically humorous note are nevertheless demanding for the violin soloist (Sibelius was an accomplished violinist himself and, therefore, knew how to write for the instrument). Chalifour demonstrated impressive dexterity in mastering the difficult parts, while still conveying a sense of humor, and he was rewarded with a standing ovation by an appreciative crowd.

The concert ended with the lush and moving one-movement Symphony No. 7. Like his fifth symphony, the seventh contains strains of dissonance that once again feel like a bleak Scandinavian landscape, but with rays of tonic sunshine, in this case in C major. The seventh was Sibelius’ last statement in symphonic form, and Salonen used it in the same manner to cap a brief journey through a program of very different works by his countryman.

Salonen is partly responsible for rebuilding the LA Phil into a world-class orchestra, and he was greeted enthusiastically by both the audience and the members of the orchestra, many of whom he hired and who during one curtain call refused to stand and instead applauded him.

—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA

For information about upcoming concerts, visit www.laphil.com.