There is something more than a little enchanted about the effect the Finnish conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen has on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
And it was evident during every moment of Thursday evening’s electrifying concert that included the world premiere of Salonen’s riveting, innovative “Cello Concerto” (created for that peerless musician, Yo-Yo Ma), a bravura rendering of Stravinsky’s score for the ballet “Petrushka” and a playful, richly dynamic performance of “Slonimsky’s Earbox,” by the modern master John Adams.
CSO with Yo-Yo Ma
When: March 11 at 8 p.m.
Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan
Info: (312) 294-3000;
Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, one intermission
A slight figure with boundless energy — who could easily play Hans Christian Andersen in a movie — Salonen is not simply a master at juxtaposing the works on any given program so that they bounce off each other in the most intriguing ways. (That gift also was fully evident at last week’s concert, featuring Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” the Chicago premiere of Adams’ “Scheherazade.2,” for violin and orchestra, and Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.”)
He brings a particular rhythmic sensibility to everything he touches that keeps you perched on the edge of your seat. It’s not that Salonen distorts what is written, but he seems to dance on the edge of every beat, whether in a slow passage or a rapid-fire one. And this completely alters the way you listen.
This ingenious sensibility can be heard in every section of his own work, the new “Cello Concerto,” in which he and Yo-Yo Ma had the instrument making sounds you’ve never heard it make before. (Spoiler alert: There is some very clever sound design involved in the looping of the solo cello that kept me guessing until I learned the explanation.)
Salonen provided a brief, witty introduction to the ideas that animated his “Cello Concerto.” The first movement came from the image of a comet — its core and its tail — moving through space. The second was designed to capture how nature works and how it is “born of its own processes rather than constructed.” The third was rooted in an individual — someone desperate to communicate, thwarted by language and so driven to gesticulate instead.
Language can’t fully capture the glorious range and complexity of this concerto, which is at once minimalist (many of the cello lines seemed not so much played as conjured by Yo-Yo Ma) and maximalist (with brilliant turns by every section of an orchestra that included piano, celesta and harp, with a smorgasbord of percussion, from timpani, bongos and congas to vibraphone, glockenspiel, maracas, cabasa, tuned gongs and more).
A multi-ensemble co-commission of the CSO, New York Philharmonic, Barbican Centre and Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, the “Cello Concerto” begins with a truly celestial, floating, singing quality (and a hint of the melancholia astronauts sometimes describe), and ends with a haunting fade-out.
The second movement has an organic, almost “Rite of Spring” quality that suggests the unheard hum of emerging activity going on beneath the ground, with Yo-Yo Ma’s virtuosity exhibited not through flash but through the absolute controlled spareness of his bowing. At moments, the cello is partnered by the flute, the trumpet or conga drums (principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh). The hum of vibration often seems to replace sound in this 30-minute work that is at once thrilling and immersive — as well as fiendishly difficult — and will leave you wishing to hear it many times over.
Written in 1911 for Diaghilev’s fabled Paris-based Ballet Russes, Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” is a marvel of theatricality and vivid orchestration and remains a potent example of that revolutionary period in music (and all the arts) that marked the first few decades of the 20th century. Set against a Shrovetide street fair in St. Petersburg, Russia, where hawkers, carnival barkers, dancers and musicians move through the crowd — and where a triangulated romance among puppets (Petrushka, the sad clown, his beloved, a ballerina, and the powerful Moor who takes command) plays out — its rhythms and colors, and the evocative use of brass and woodwinds (both sections of the orchestra are superb here) are seductive, mysterious and altogether wondrous.
I’ve heard “Petrushka” played many times (most often when it was danced by the Joffrey Ballet, which I wish would revive it) but have never felt more excitement, or a greater sense of surprise at every shift in mood and rhythm, than I did with this performance. The work seemed miraculously reborn.
Salonen’s choice of “Slonimsky’s Earbox” was a perfect prelude to the program. In it, Adams pays homage to Nicolas Slonimsky (1894-1995), the musical polymath and writer whose “Lexicon of Musical Invective” catalogued the reactions of audiences and critics to the debut of “new music” over the years. Beginning with a big blast of sound, and shot through with alternately discordant, frenzied and beautifully dreamy, lyrical passages, it deftly conjured the “old modern” and the new.
The extended standing ovation for Salonen’s “Cello Concerto” suggested that audiences’ “earboxes” have been tuned quite differently in recent years. And the fact that the CSO has never sounded more brilliant only enhanced the experience.