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Review: Salonen’s ‘Stunning’ Cello Concerto ‘Creates a Glimmering Sound Tapestry’ with the NY Philharmonic

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, March 20, 2017

One of the highlights of 2017’s classical music season was undoubtedly this Thursday’s sold-out concert at the New York Philharmonic with the inimitable Yo-Yo Ma playing the New York premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s stunning new cello concerto.

Continuing the previous week’s celebration of John Adams’s 70th birthday, this concert began with his 1985 minimalist piece The Chairman Dances. Subtitled “Foxtrot for Orchestra,” Adams describes it as an “out-take” from his opera Nixon in China, and the piece centers on an imagined dance between the titular Chairman Mao and his wife. At first, the syncopated music seems a meditation on the minor third, bringing to mind the theme for the opening credits of “House of Cards.” But the harmonic texture gradually becomes more varied, unfolding with the logic of a Rube Goldberg device. Adams also employs cinema-like effects, when in one moment we seem to cross-cut to a window or reflection. There is an air of nostalgia, and the memory seems to evaporate as the music fades away. The percussion section, playing with precision, tone, and character, particularly distinguished themselves.

During the awkward period while the stage setup was rearranged, Gilbert invited Salonen to speak and offer some words of introduction. So, while chairs were stacked and unstacked, and musicians flitted about, Salonen summarized his printed program notes. He spoke of a few metaphors that inspired the concerto. In the first movement, which contemplated the notion of “Chaos to Line,” a stylized version of chaos distils into a melody with a comet’s tail. The use of live tape loop sound effects captured and repeated phrases played by Ma into speakers swirling around the audience.

While the material given to the solo cello was not immediately vainglorious, the piece is spellbinding and the cello’s highest register is used to exquisite effect with the tape effects. This was music with a cosmic quality, like the photographs sent back from the Hubble Telescope, dripping with mystery, encompassing clusters of suns and the bleakness of black holes. Salonen’s language is rooted in tonality here, embracing relatable post-modern harmonic idioms, but an imaginative and complex use of the orchestra creates a glimmering sound tapestry

In the second movement, we finally arrive at a moment where Ma and his cello were the only things in the room; all of the light in the universe seemed to be extinguished. The solo cello and its “tail” (looped effects) created a mesmerizing window into the void, occasionally entwining with the alto flute. Ma spun stratospheric harmonics out of the blue, then wispy cries like the wailing of falling stars, eventually melting back into the turbulent “cloud,” as Salonen describes it in his notes. The third movement satisfies with a more visceral rhythmic drive, the use of bongos and congas, and feverish accelerandos. The solo part was a staggering feat of athleticism, and the ending, again involving echoing effects bouncing around the auditorium, was other-worldly.

Hector Berlioz’s warhorse Symphonie fantastique is the quintessential Romantic piece. This programmatic symphony in five movements was groundbreaking in 1830, a bridge from Beethoven to Wagner. Berlioz took the direction in which Beethoven sent the symphony and ran with it, integrating the ideals of the new Romanticism by telling the story of a young artist experiencing lovesickness. Berlioz could not have imagined a more compelling performance of his creation.

The first movement introduces an idée fixe, which represents the young artist depicted in Berlioz’s musical narrative, and continues as a unifying motive throughout the piece. In the second movement, “A Ball,” which seems to especially anticipate the ballet music of Tchaikovsky, the vibrant violin section shaped the waltzing melodies with grace and yearning. The third movement (“Scene in the Country”) opens with a plaintive woodwind duet (including an off-stage oboe, in one of Berlioz’s tone-painting techniques), played with simple beauty. In this delicate movement’s interplay between high woodwinds and the strings, the orchestral playing seems to be at a very high level. Nearly flawless intonation. Carefully shaped dynamic phrasing. Rhythmically precise pizzicatos and timpani punctuation.

In the fourth movement, the rousing “March to the Scaffold,” the bassoon section rose to the fore, with spirited soli playing. Especially dramatic was the shock when the solo clarinet’s brief statement of the idée fixe was rudely interrupted by a loud sharp chord, i.e., the fall of the guillotine. The colorful final movement, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” in which the ominous Dies Irae conveys a sense of doom, the brass and percussion sizzled, bringing the piece to a thrilling conclusion.


New York Philharmonic in concert on Thursday, March 16, 2017 at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center (this program was played March 15-18, 2017). Alan Gilbert, conductor. Yo-Yo Ma, cellist.

JOHN ADAMS: The Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra)
ESA-PEKKA SALONEN: Cello Concerto (New York Premiere)
HECTOR BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique


Cover: Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic with cellist Yo-Yo Ma; photo: Chris Lee.


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