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What Is The Sound Of One Drum Beating?

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
01/12/2003 -  
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Foreign Bodies
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto # 3
Jean Sibelius: Symphony # 5

Till Fellner (piano)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste (conductor)

It was hardly necessary to have a program at yesterday’s Finnish Radio Symphony concert at Avery Fisher to know that the first piece of the afternoon was to be some contemporary music, as the stage was littered with percussion instruments, forcing the rather large ensemble to crowd in to conditions reminiscent of downtown Calcutta. The work turned out to be written by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the current music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Having just experienced the raw power of one pair of timpani at Leon Botstein’s Bruckner concert on Friday evening, I was struck, not for the first time, with the profligate use of percussive resources in our pop-inspired age. Often, it seems that modern composers use these unpitched instruments as surrogates for interesting musical thought, seeming to ignore the profundities of such master klangfarben artists as Messiaen, Bartók and Varese in favor of a general trend towards excess inspired perhaps by the vapid, consumer oriented industry of Mr. Salonen’s adopted home town. The piece itself was predictably loud and surprisingly long, a Bernsteinesque traversal of obvious emotions and rhythms from a 1940’s nightclub. The Finns, who after all have little chance to exhibit their wares on this side of the Atlantic, may be forgiven for presenting such a mass produced pastry, harmful additives and all, but I for one would have much preferred something a little more thoughtful, for example a mature work of Rautavaara.

The remainder of the concert was actually quite pleasant. Till Fellner, the only Austrian in the bunch (this orchestra is remarkably homogenous, perhaps the daunting nature of the Finnish language precludes international participation?), shared his Viennese Classicism in a decidedly correct version of the Beethoven 3. Certainly, his technical skills are impressive as are his obvious convictions of authenticity, but I would have preferred a more full-bodied and self-aggrandizing version. I think of this work as Beethoven coming out of his shell; Mr. Fellner’s merry prank is to see it as more looking inward than outward, more backward than forward, and it is hard to argue with so solid of a conception.

The orchestra as a whole is well disciplined but probably not ideal for such a sweeping work as the Sibelius 5. It is always a pleasure to hear a Finnish rendition of this uniquely colorful music: there is a certain rough hewn quality that they always bring to the party. This version was sublimely evocative of the north woods and its rich tapestry of legend, but, at the same time, was lacking in the big gesture so necessary for communicating such gigantic coloristic ideas. Sibelius was a true synaesthete and cries out for powerful adherents to really display such an epic landscape. The final movement, with its spectacular finale, fell a little short of the mark. Having said all of this, the spirit and the letter of the score came through charmingly. It was thrilling to end the affair with a rousing Finlandia, but a little perplexing to follow that with a delicate Valse triste. One would have thought that the reverse would have been more lastingly effective.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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