THOSE SUMPTUOUS STRINGS OF SIBELIUS
Fresh-faced and vital, Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen returned to the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a program centered on Finland’s greatest composer, Jean Sibelius. I was somewhat concerned since a few separate music lovers I know found last Thursday’s performance, the first of a 3-performance weekend, underwhelming. I admit that there’s a cool reserve to the program, especially in the Sixth Symphony, but at Saturday’s matinee the orchestra sounded lively, fresh, sturdy, and full-bodied, especially the soaring strings. Still, I would recommend a stiff cup of coffee before the program to stave off those chilly Northern notes.
Given that it’s the 100th year since Finland declared independence, the symphonic poem Finlandia was a natural start, and the eight-minute work certainly was a stunner. It represents a deeply felt expression of patriotism for Finns, even though Sibelius had more modest intentions for the piece: the 1899 piece premiered at a rally defending freedom of the press. Played with striking majesty, the central melody could be a national anthem, and it certainly represented the iconic fire-and-ice element of Sibelius.
The glorious Sixth Symphony isn’t one of his most accessible, but Salonen opened up all the warmer and darker sentiments of Sibelius’s music, which underneath has a deeply emotional core that represents, for me, what it means to exist in an unforgiving landscape, which is why it has that Northern sensibility. I found that the maestro made it intensely sweet and sad at the same time. At the end of the program, the Seventh Symphony was given an outstanding treatment, even as there are no real themes except the trombone (played with great depth by David Rejano Cantero). Composed as a single span of just over 21 minutes, it’s a miracle of compression. What was remarkable here was Salonen’s ability to make it grippingly romantic even as it flowed with power (there was a strong legato in both symphonies).
Opening the second half was the oft-recorded Six Humoresques; four are Op. 89 and two are Op. 87 (he wanted the Humoresques to be played together even though they were published with two separate opus numbers). Instead of a guest violinist, the LA Phil put their Concertmaster Martin Chalifour in the spotlight. I have heard him play in salons, and the same disarming style permeated all six pieces, but he doesn’t play like a seasoned soloist. It wasn’t for lack of competency, but without a fire in his belly for this sort of thing, we were given a few squeaks and a little bit of hesitancy. As with the symphonies, Sibelius’s short works here express what the composer called “the sadness of living a life that was only occasionally illuminated by the sun.” What I loved was how Chalifour made them sweet, adding sophistication, delicate beauty, and a heap of charm; he beautifully represented the Nordic late romanticism.
photos courtesy of LA Phil
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Esa-Pekka Salonen, Guest Conductor
Martin Chalifour, violin
Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave.
ends on April 9, 2017
for tickets, call 323.850.2000 or visit LA Phil