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Salonen’s Legacy: A 21st Century Piano Concerto

Los Angeles
Walt Disney Concert Hall
05/30/2008 -  
Claude Debussy/Colin Matthews: Préludes: Feux d’artifice, Bruyères, Le Vent dans la Plaine, La Fille aux cheveux de lin (West Coast premiere of the arrangements)
Colin Matthews: Postlude – M. Croche
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Piano Concerto (West Coast Premiere)

Yefim Bronfam (piano)
Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

In the post-concert discussion, Yefim Bronfman (‘Fema,’ as he is affectionately nicknamed) commented: “After his first piece for piano, Dichotomie, I begged for something lighter. But I got something much more difficult- finally a great [modern] piano concerto. There is Ravel, Prokofiev, Bartok… Tippett. But it is so rare now to have great piano concertos. I am thrilled to play it again and again.”

This particular evening was part of the LA Philharmonic’s Casual Friday Series, with both the orchestra and the audience in informal dress. The program was shorter than other concerts and included discussions with the conductor/composer (and his team) both before and after. I would normally prefer the longer programs but this evening was spectacular, even historic. Due to the fact that the piano concerto was a premiere with Salonen’s musicians in his concert hall, paired with the fact that he is on the eve of leaving the orchestra, the public conversations and realizations were as deeply moving as the music itself.

In his pre-concert introduction to the concerto, Salonen described a long, difficult and complex piece. “Don’t forget to go to the bathroom first”, he quipped. But he claimed that it was not inapproachable for an audience; “the listener will always know where it is going… But I could not write something easy for Fema- he has technique that is limitless, perhaps 12 or 14 fingers… It was like Jack Nicholson asking someone to write a play for him.” He described the first movement as the largest and heaviest, with a dynamic relation between the piano and the orchestra. At moments it is like chamber music. Then there is a duet with a solo viola. He then announced with pride that Carrie Dennis, the former first viola with the Berlin Philharmonic had just come to LA and would perform the duet that evening. After the duet, the piano recedes to become just one instrument in the orchestra.

The second movement begins with a cadenza. Then it moves into Salonen’s notorious “artificial folk music” based on “artificial birdsong.” Inspired by concepts from science fiction, the composer posits a post-human culture of robots, who suffer an existential crisis and decide to search for their roots. As if from a world imagined by the speculative Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, Salonen described a folk music composed by a robot, based on the songs of robotic birds. The movement ends with a lyrical lullaby, a Rachmaninoff moment.

The third movement, with its lighthearted, playful virtuoso finale, includes what the composer called “the most difficult piano music imaginable.” He described Yefim Bronfman as a musical tightrope walker - very exciting to watch, because he could make a mistake only once. Salonen reported that he had reworked the concerto since its premiere with the New York Philharmonic, clarifying certain balances and making small changes. He hoped that the live recording being made that evening at Disney Hall by Deutsche Grammophon would be available soon.

The concert began with the orchestral arrangements of four of Debussy’s Préludes, by the English composer Colin Matthews. Matthews named his Postlude after Debussy’s nom de plume, M. Croche. Previously performed by the Hallé Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic, Matthews’ versions of Debussy made a warm opening for the evening. Salonen conducted the modern romanticism with tense fluidity, creating a glittery, wide-eyed and innocent sound, reminiscent of Saint-Saëns “Aquarium”. The violin and viola carried the lush melodies. Even the sustained and ravishing romance of the “Fille aux cheveux de lin” was etched with military precision. Matthews’ Postlude was playful and full of life, with an explosive finale.

As the Piano concerto was about to begin, the conductor and composer quickly glanced at each other - artist conspirators of the highest order. The piece opened with timpani and log drums, and strings out of Prokofiev. The percussion felt syncopated; the piano sounded like Ravel, with strings, more timpani and a spectacular trumpet. The piano was furious, playing off bits of fury from the orchestra. Then the orchestra took over, with a spiky, almost Latin feel from the jazzy congas and vibraphone. The lead went back and forth between orchestra and piano, until the striking duet with the viola. Carrie Dennis stood, a supremely confident soloist. For a moment it seemed like a high-speed Prokofiev Sonata. Then the violist sat down again, swallowed up by an overwhelming but meticulous wave of orchestral sound. Bronfman’s 14 fingers flew. Even the arpeggios in the harp careened past.

The cadenza that opened the second movement was a pure 21st century narrative. The complex piano and orchestral melodies that followed drew much from Ravel and Prokofiev. Reminded of Ravel’s incomparable piano concertos, I forgot to think about artificial birds and robotic folk music. I wondered about the possibility of a truly great 21st century piano concerto. But amidst the fullness of the orchestra and the immensity of Yefim Bronfman’s piano, the comparison with Ravel became meaningless. This was pure deep joyful music. I felt surrounded by swirls and eddies of sound, by the bell-like glockenspiel, marimbas and vibes, the inner beat of the congas.

In the finale, Bronfman was more furious than ever, violent among against the violins and violas. At the concerto’s close, his fingers pounded against the blasts from the orchestra, against the triumphant brightness of the percussion.

In the post-concert discussion onstage there were several memorable comments. Salonen: “The sound of an orchestra is the sound of an orchestra in our hall… They know my music well… This is what I imagined. It kind of sounds better here.”

An audience member: “I sat in this seat when you opened this new hall for us. Now after all these years, you leave us with such a legacy! Is there anything you would change?”

Salonen: “Those words mean a lot to me. This journey has exceeded my wildest dreams about what it would mean to be conductor of an orchestra. LA has been so dynamic in so many ways. My wife and I have been affected even far beyond music… This amazing orchestra in this amazing city hired a Finnish guy no one had heard of. You should be proud. When Gustavo takes over this will happen all over again. This is unique in the world today. I am proud and you should be too.”

Thomas Aujero Small



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