By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News/
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/San Bernardino Sun
Los Angeles Philharmonic; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Sibelius: Symphony No. 4; Symphony No. 7. Stucky: Radical Light
Friday, October 19, 2007 • Walt Disney Concert Hall
When Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, launched the orchestra's Sibelius Unbound series last weekend, he did so with the most familiar of Finish composer's works — Finlandia and Symphony No. 2 — together with Salonen’s own composition, Wing on Wing, which some of us were hearing for the third or fourth time.
This week, things get more challenging. Last night and today at Walt Disney Concert Hall brought forth two of Sibelius' darkest, least-known symphonies, Nos. 4 and 7, along with the world premiere of a new work, Radical Light, written specifically for this festival by Steven Stucky. Tomorrow night and Sunday are all-Sibelius programs: the first and third symphonies and the tone poem Pohjola’s Daugher.
Throughout this series, Salonen is providing a persuasive argument for audiences to rethink their feelings about the music of Sibelius. Once his works were performed everywhere but during the last half-century, the Finn’s music — brooding, dramatic, melodic, tonal — has fallen out of favor. Many are discovering, or rediscovering, what beautiful music Sibelius writes played magnificently by Los Angeles Philharmonic.
In a brief talk this morning, Salonen described Sibelius’ Symphony No. 4 in A minor as the least understood of his seven works in that genre. Where many people see musical visions of Finland’s natural environment, Salonen believes the symphony is, instead, the most completely private of Sibelius’ works.
Under Salonen’s hand, the four-movement work emerged as a series of layers using sections and soloists (among the latter, the sinewy tone of Principal Cellist Peter Stumpf). It was fascinating to hear how Sibelius intricately built the piece, first one section, then another, with interjections by the woodwind’s section principals. The third movement was at once brooding and majestic headlined by rich, luxuriant bass sounds (one of the Phil’s trademarks) and the final movement, one of the stranger endings in all of symphonic music, was spellbinding.
During the festival, Salonen is interspersing music written by composers influenced by Sibelius. Today’s effort was Radical Light by Steven Stucky, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who had been associated with the Philharmonic for 20 years (he’s currently the orchestra’s consultant on New Music).
The 56-year-old Stucky said in a pre-performance dialogue with Salonen that he is “a 20th century composer with all of modernism at my disposal but I’m not consumed by it.” In his 16-minute piece, Stucky has created a single-movement, extremely accessible work scored for large orchestra (but not, oddly enough, timpani) that emerges as one sweeping gesture with many individual things occurring.
The music moves from brooding to brisk to luxuriant. Salonen conducted the work with enthusiasm and the orchestra — which is never fazed by any sort of music, no matter how intricate — played the new piece as if they had known it for years.
In his talk, Stucky paid homage to Sibelius’s Symphony No. 7 in C major, another single-movement work. Salonen conducted the opening theme reverentially and there were certainly echoes (to me, at any rate) of rolling seas in the third theme. The ending was particularly effective, as the final chord fell silent and overtones from chimes faded to silence over nearly 10 seconds. The effect was magical in Disney Hall’s marvelous acoustic; one wonders whether it can be produced in the upcoming European tour.
• Every time I attend one of the 11 a.m. Friday program, I continued to be amazed at how civilized a time it is for a concert. You’re fully awake but not tired from a busy day. Getting to the concert is a snap. If you’re driving, you’re behind rush hour traffic coming in and ahead of it going home. Mass transit is even easier; in addition to Metro Rail daytime concerts bring Metrolink trains into the mix, as well.
• Coming out of the concert, I walked over to the mall that separates the Hall of Administration from the County Courthouse and strolled downhill to the Civic Center Red Line station, then rode to Union Station and transferred to the Gold Line to go home. On a warm day, it was heavenly.
• Things are a little more casual on Fridays. The men of the orchestra wear suits and ties including tuxedos; some of the women appear to be dressed in business attire instead of what’s often called “concert black.” The crowd was good-sized but not a sellout; however, it approximated the number that attended in the concert I attended last week.
• Instead of the “turn off your cellphone” recorded announcement, Salonen strolled onstage and delivered the admonition himself. He also gave an erudite six-minute talk about Sibelius’ fourth symphony, which opened the concert.
• Sibelius Unbound continues Tuesday with Salonen conducting the Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra (Salonen studied at the Academy as a youth) and concludes Thursday and Friday with the Philharmonic playing Sibelius’ fifth and sixth symphonies and a set of songs with tenor Ben Heppner as soloist. From there the Phil and its Sibelius series are off to London, Paris and Spain..
(c) Copyright 2007, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.