Last night, the Philharmonia Orchestra, from London, performed in David Geffen Hall. They were led by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the fabulous Finn, who has long been associated with this orchestra. According to the calendar, he is just into his sixties. Honestly, he looks about like he did when he was just starting out. He should share his secrets with the rest of us.

Salonen had a long tenure in Los Angeles: from 1992 to 2009. Afterward, he gave the impression that he did not want another music directorship, preferring to concentrate on his composing. Yet he was recently announced as the next music director in San Francisco.

Last night, the Philharmonia’s program consisted of Sibelius, Salonen, and Stravinsky (three S’s). When he was young, Salonen went through a fierce anti-Sibelius phase, common to Finnish musicians. The attitude was “Kill your father,” as he once told me in an interview. But he came to appreciate and love the father.

Salonen and the Philharmonia performed The Oceanides, a tone poem from 1914. That performance bore the Salonen hallmarks of neatness and intelligence. The conductor never let the music get wayward. (He also let it breathe.) The orchestra made excellent sounds and was technically assured.

In our program notes was a statement from Olin Downes, the music critic, who was a great champion of Sibelius. Indeed, he was known as “Sibelius’s Apostle.” Downes called The Oceanides “the finest evocation of the sea which has ever been produced in music.”

We know the piece is about—or “about”—the sea because of the title. But what if the piece were called The American West? What if someone told you that the piece was a response by Sibelius to an encounter with our West: its big skies and mountain ranges and spirit of freedom and wonder? Would you buy it?

I believe you would. I would too.

The Salonen on the program was his cello concerto, which premiered in 2017. The concerto was written for Yo-Yo Ma, who duly played the premiere in Chicago, with the composer on the podium. Days later, Ma played the piece in New York, with our Philharmonic. The conductor this time was Alan Gilbert. I wrote about the piece at some length in a chronicle, here. One of the things I said was, “I would like to hear the concerto again.” Last night, I had my chance.

Lorin Maazel said, “I’ve learned a great deal about conducting by composing, and a great deal about composing by conducting other people’s music.”

I thought about Lorin Maazel, the late conductor, who also composed, although not nearly as much as Salonen. He composed just a little. I once asked him whether being a composer made him a better conductor. Yes, he said, “and the other way around, too. I’ve learned a great deal about conducting by composing, and a great deal about composing by conducting other people’s music.” He added, “I have a great deal of trouble conducting my own music, or have had.”

That is terribly interesting, worthy of an essay on its own.

The soloist for the Salonen concerto last night was Truls Mork, the Norwegian cellist. He used a score, and so did the conductor, and composer. Mork made his usual handsome sound, or sounds, and he seemed undaunted by the concerto’s technical challenges, which are considerable. His performance was cooler than I remember Ma’s. “Less hot,” is another way to put that. Then again, most people’s are.

In the second movement, I believe, there is an unaccompanied stretch for the cello, ghostly. During this stretch, a cellphone went off in David Geffen Hall, most unfortunately. Such is the hazard of modern concert life.

For the third movement, Salonen had a percussionist play a set of drums (and at least one other instrument) right out in front. Next to the podium (to the right, as you see it from the audience). This looked interesting. The conductor-composer must have wanted a sonic effect, too. A couple of times, Salonen clipped the percussionist’s music stand with his baton. Once, he jarred the stand out of place—and neatly, thoughtfully moved it back.

So, what did I think of the concerto (not that you asked)? I wrote about it enough in 2017, I think. Maybe I should hear it a third time. Let me say now, however, that everything seems too long to me—almost every new piece I hear these days. Either I lack the patience or composers overtax it.

The second half of the concert consisted of one work, Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird. Salonen is a superb conductor of this work, one of the best. In 2014, he conducted the New York Philharmonic in it. (I reviewed that concert here.) When he lived in L.A., he almost bought Stravinsky’s house. (To hear that story, as he told it to me, go here.)

Last night, Salonen and the Philharmonia began The Firebird very, very softly—impossibly softly. The man behind me said, “Wow” (a lot louder than the playing). The entrance that followed was clean—clean as a whistle. So were subsequent entrances, and the performance at large. A Salonen orchestra seldom errs. The Philharmonia was a virtuosic machine, but not mechanical—a virtuosic, musical machine.

A Salonen orchestra seldom errs. The Philharmonia was a virtuosic machine, but not mechanical—a virtuosic, musical machine.

Stravinsky gives the woodwinds much to do in The Firebird, and the Philharmonia’s players took full advantage. The flute contributed special beauty, I would say. The concertmaster contributed beauty of his own. And the horn did his daring, high-wire job.

Salonen was rigorous, of course—he always is, sometimes to a fault. Did he also allow the music to bloom and glow? Yes, he did.

When it was all over, he had the horn stand and bow first—before the orchestra at large. “From one horn player to another,” I thought. (Before he became a conductor, Salonen played the horn.)

Eventually, Salonen turned to the enthusiastic audience and said, “How’s the train situation? Do you have time for a short encore?” Obviously, the conductor knows New York. They wanted an encore, yes. But first they would have to quiet down. “This piece begins very softly,” said Salonen.

It was his go-to encore, “The Fairy Garden” from Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. No one conducts it better. The Philharmonia Orchestra played it beautifully. By the way, Salonen used a baton all concert long, until he got to the Ravel. For it, he went batonless. Why? Did a hands-only approach enhance tenderness? Lead to greater caressing? It would be interesting to ask the conductor.

This was a satisfying evening, featuring a first-class musician, Salonen, and an orchestra that I believe is underrated in the world. There may be combinations I would rather hear than Salonen-Philharmonia. If so, damn few.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.