The growing and invigorating relationship between composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra continues to bloom this week at Orchestra Hall.
Three Czech works and one by the Finnish Salonen are on the program, two of them having downtown or CSO premieres, and all of them unusual and fascinating.
There is no single path to success for a conductor, and for those who would combine this demanding career with the serious writing of serious music, the way is even less clear. Salonen, still boyish at 55, started as a horn player who also wanted to compose. Finding, as with his forerunner Pierre Boulez, that to hear your own music played, let alone played well, it was best to learn to conduct it. He followed the course of the renowned Helsinki conducting teacher Jorma Panula, and the rest has been a remarkable history, culminating, on the podium side with his 17 years leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic (until 2009).
This week, in addition to the dotted rhythms and strange mash-ups of Janacek and Dvorak’s early Violin Concerto, withsoloist Christian Tetzlaff, Salonen brought his own large-scale “Nyx.” His first purely orchestral work since 2005, the 19-minute piece bears the same hallmarks as his recent massive piano and violin concertos heard with him to great acclaim here in recent years. Exquisite craftsmanship that both understands and challenges the many orchestral parts, a keen sense of movement in which a musical idea or fragment grows continuously over time and unexpected combinations of solo parts and ideas with the larger forces — are performed here with four horns and the clarinet throwing out passages both mysterious and propulsive.
For me, the work was more admirable — and remarkably played and led — than deep.The focus is on a very hard-to-pin-down figure from early Greek mythology who plays a role in the creation of day, making deep connection with the subject difficult. But Salonen towers over most others out there today writing for full orchestra.
It’s actually sad that the 1928 Overture to Leos Janacek’s last opera “From the House of the Dead” has never been heard downtown before (it was played once at Ravinia under Libor Pesek in 1993) and sadder still that Chicago has yet to hear the full, remarkable work which Salonen led with the late Patrice Chereau at the Metropolitan Opera in New York four seasons ago. A whole psychological world is compressed in six minutes. The initially crazy-sounding rhythms and exchanges of the same composer’s hypnotic “Sinfonietta” (1926) with its expanded array of trumpets and tubas will become even more etched over the four performances this week. (This complex program had only three rehearsals.)
Tetzlaff is one of the few who plays the Dvorak, a lopsided construction from 1879-80 that looks to the major Brahms concerto before it and hints at things to come from Dvorak himself. And he plays the heck out of it. Some might find his extended lines and almost theatrical musical swooping a kind of artistic salesmanship, but the first two movements of this piece, before the tight Bohemian and other dances of the finale, need selling. The German, 48 this month, is a technical master, and if the concerto were not enough, he offered the cheering crowd the Gavotte and Rondeau from Bach’s third Solo Partita that had a freedom, purity and improvised quality that had the CSO players focused on him with keen admiration.
Australian Andrew Bain, in his third season as principal horn in Los Angeles, is sitting in this week as the orchestra seeks to fill Dale Clevenger’s vacant first chair.