Rarely does one get to witness a performance of a work that resulted from the collaboration between a world−class performer and a conductor/composer. But that is exactly what attendees of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) this past weekend experienced when violinist Leila Josefowicz performed Esa−Pekka Salonen’s 2009 Violin Concerto — which won the Grawemeyer Award, perhaps the most prestigious prize a piece of new classical music can win — under the baton of maestro Salonen himself. The concerto, which was written for Josefowicz, was flanked by Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin” (1919), an orchestration of a 1917 piano work, and Igor Stravinsky’s entire score to “The Firebird” (1910).
From the downbeat of the Ravel, it was clear that Salonen’s conducting was something special. Salonen, former longtime music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and current principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, was incredibly respectful of the BSO’s impeccable musicianship, allowing the prominent soloists, such as the principal oboist. to shape the music as he saw fit. He did little more than guide the interpretation through light and contained hand gestures, rarely even beating time with any insistency.
The result was exquisite — one would be hard−pressed to find a more delicate, relaxed, and gentle performance of “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” There was a tendency for the collective tempo of the ensemble to wax and wane, which some listeners might object to, but on the whole, the fluctuations lent a fluid and organic quality to the performance.
Salonen’s concerto followed the Ravel, and there was certainly something of Ravel’s aesthetic evident in the opening movement of the four−movement concerto. Josefowicz’s part rhapsodically unfolded resonant harmonies, with the orchestra occasionally supporting those resonances. The second movement was an introverted and restrained slow movement, with the timpani in the background articulating a heartbeat−like pulse. This restraint was wholly abandoned in the third movement, which warped the gentle pulse of the previous movement into a frenetic, raucous, polyrhythmic beat punctuated by interjections of a rock drum kit.
It’s always a difficult task to blend instruments or tropes from popular music into successful “art” music, but Salonen acquitted himself very well. Not only did the drum kit not feel gimmicky, but it felt necessary to accomplish what he set out to do musically in the movement. By this point in the concerto, Salonen’s conducting had changed drastically from his relatively laissez−faire approach in the Ravel. He was incredibly clear with his beat, even with the frequent meter changes. But given the fact that he wrote the piece, one would expect him to know what was going to happen.
The orchestra did an impressive job following him, even managing to pull off the distinctly un−classical groove Salonen wrote. Josefowicz was clearly in her element in this movement; her rhythm was spot on and she absolutely captured the flair the music called for. This was made all the more impressive by the fact that she looked to be about seven months pregnant, a time at which she could have easily refrained from performing. Instead, she was essentially rocking out on stage to an incredibly difficult concerto, and never missed a beat. The concerto ended with another slow movement, this one chock−full of gorgeous melodic material, which Salonen seemed to have been saving up for optimal effect.
Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” (1910) closed the concert. The entire ballet score is rarely performed these days; it is far more common for orchestras to perform one of the two suites Stravinsky wrote, which cut out more than half the material he originally wrote. It was a wonderful opportunity for audiences to hear the unfiltered output of the young Stravinsky. Where the later suites try to eliminate or hide the extent to which he was influenced by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky−Korsakov, the full score has a lush, Russian Romantic aesthetic.
But there is a certain charm to the full work that the leaner suites diminish. The BSO’s performance was predictably flawless, and the final section (sometimes known as “The Final Hymn”), which is always stunning, was especially so. Salonen paced it perfectly, and the orchestral sound was exceptionally resonant in Symphony Hall. The overall effect was spine−tingling and exactly the reason audiences fill up Symphony Hall week after week.
As receptive as the audience had been for the previous two works — and all indications were that the BSO patrons loved Salonen’s concerto — the response to the end of “The Firebird” was overwhelming. Audience members were on their feet almost before the final chord ended, and Salonen and the orchestra were brought out for four ovations. It would be nearly impossible for anyone at the concert to believe for even a second that classical music is dying after such a performance.