Photo: Pete Checchia.

Philadelphia Orchestra May 2024

Esa-Pekka Salonen is guest conductor for two weekends in May 2024

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka-Salonen was on the Philadelphia Orchestra podium for two weekends in May. The first weekend he conducted Sibelius’s mighty Symphony No. 5 paired with his own composition ‘Kimena.’ The second, a series featuring what proved to be a glittering performance of Maurice Ravel’s complete ballet score to ‘Daphnis and Chloe.’ Preceding that, in the first half of the concert, were equally captivating works by Salonen and by fellow Finish composer Kaija Saariaho.

Striding on stage with command, Salonen introduced the connective threads in the three works. But first spoke of his colleague Ms. Saariaho, who died in 2023 of brain cancer. He noted that Saariaho composed ‘Lumiere et Pesanteur’ in 2009 as a gift to Salonen, in admiration of his performance of her 2006 oratorio ‘Le Passion De Simone. ’

The first notes of ‘Lumiere’ are distant glass chimes that prologue a slow-moving soundfield that quietly approach and hypnotizes as hit hovers with whispery strings, a wayward horn passage (a gold tone horn aria in place of a soprano’s aria) and ascending harp voicings. The atmospherics are dynamic, serene, and transcendent. It made you want to stay in that sanctuary of sound for more than its six-minute length.

The full oratorio is about the life of French-Jewish writer-philosopher Simone Weil, who starved herself to death during WWII in solidarity with those suffering under the brutalities of war. Ms. Saariaho excerpted a movement that Salonen particularly admired that depicted the prayers of The Stations of the Cross.

Next was the fiery dimensions of Salonen’s expansive Concertante for Organ and Orchestra. Salonen commented earlier that since organ music goes back 2000 years, and in many ways it can technically do as much as a full orchestra, he wanted to illustrate that. And his Sinfonia does so in dramatic and witty ways. Sections are reminiscent of jazz musicians dueling cadenzas.

In fact, to this ear, outside of jazz organ composition, this piece is one of the most relevant and innovative of contemporary organ symphonies often sound haunted (sometimes chained in antiquity.

The Sinfonia’s three movements – Pavane & Drones- Variations and Dirge- Ghost Montage- Salonen notes have fleeting echoes of Bach, Mahler, Beethoven and even the populist organ triumphalism that impressed him at a Flyers hockey game he attended forty years ago. Talk about playing to the Philly crowd!
The Pavane, a baroque dance, Salonen builds with flute and horn passages as the organ whriling ‘drone’ roiling underneath, but soon becomes expressive and feral. The full throttle soundfield is deep, crystallized, and occasionally cinematic. The orchestra and on a parallel sonic tracks that that collide in Variations & Dirge, fueled by an irresistible rhythmic drive of percussion. Intermittently, Latry’s serene, mid-tempo solo takes over. Salonen’s more lyrical passages are just as vividly played.

There are cadenzas in the 2nd and 3rd movements, Variation’s Siciliano) and the 3rd (Salonen notes as a ‘tutti outburst’) has Latry’s arms and legs dancing all over the keyboards and pedals. Seeing and hearing Latry perform this virtuosic 30-minute Sinfonia, it is no surprise that he was an organist at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, he is also professor of organ at the Paris Conservatory.

Salonen had his own animated moves for the closing work as the Fabulous Philadelphians conjured all of Ravel’s luminous orchestral colors and erotic mystique of Daphnis and Chloe. The full orchestra’s warmth, sensuality, and characterizations of the episodic narrative of the lovers, the torrents of Chloe’s kidnapping by pirates, the entrance of the god Pan who rescues her, even without dancers, the sensuality of the story blooming via Ravel’s dramatic lyricism. As for the 100 or so members of the Philadelphia Symphonic Choir under director Gabriel Crouch, singing Ravel’s ‘wordless’ chorus- Vocally radiant and soulful would be the words that describe their performance.

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