Concert Review: Leila Josefowicz and the Boston Symphony Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen

As the BSO searches for its new music director, Mr. Salonen’s name is sure to come up. While he’s probably a long-shot candidate, any orchestra that has him on their podium for a week or two a season should count itself lucky.

Leila Josefowicz and the Boston Symphony Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen. At Symphony Hall, Boston, MA, April 14.

By Jonathan Blumhofer.

Leila Josefowicz performed Esa-Pekka Salonen's Violin Concerto with Salonen and the BSO Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

Twenty-four years is a long time to be away: in January 1988, Michael Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts, Yugoslavia was still a country, and former Beatle George Harrison scored a number one hit with “Got My Mind Set On You.” That was also the most recent time, until last week, that Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). The intervening near quarter century has been very good to Mr. Salonen: his 17-year tenure as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (he stepped down in 2009) stands as a model marriage of conductor and orchestra, while, in the last decade especially, his composition portfolio has grown impressively. This weekend’s subscription concerts allowed Boston audiences to glimpse both sides of Mr. Salonen’s musical profile, as he led a program consisting of his own Grawemeyer Award-winning Violin Concerto alongside scores by Ravel and Stravinsky. Saturday’s performance, sponsored in part by a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Jeffrey E. Marshall, was electrifying.

There are precious few world-class conductors who are also world-class composers—Mahler, Strauss, Britten, and Bernstein lead the 20th-century list—but put Mr. Salonen at the head of the 21st-century tally. He wrote his Violin Concerto in 2009 for the extraordinary Leila Josefowicz, who performed the solo part in this weekend’s concerts. Writing that Ms. Josefowicz’s involvement in the process of creating the piece was extensive, Mr. Salonen notes that the resulting end product is “as much a portrait of her as it is my more private narrative.” Regardless of what that private narrative might be, the public portrait clearly reflects Ms. Josefowicz’s musical persona: the piece is a knock-out.

Cast in four movements, the Concerto runs about 30 minutes. The first movement, titled “Mirage,” is a rapid-fire toccata for the soloist, countered by glittering percussive colorations and bursts of thick orchestral sonorities. The two middle movements, respectively titled “Pulse I” and “Pulse II,” explore new perspectives of rhythm and texture. In the first, a steady timpani beat underlies a haze of divisi string chords through which the solo violin weaves a pensive, disjunct melody. The second depicts a kinetic, urban soundscape, filled with angular rhythms and some of the wildest violin writing this side of Bartók. The finale, “Adieu,” stands as a farewell, though this is not a sentimental good-bye: Mr. Salonen’s program note articulates his ambivalence at turning 50 (in 2008) and in stepping down from the directorship of the L.A. Philharmonic (the following year), and the music here reflects these mixed feelings.

In Ms. Josefowicz, he has both a wholly sympathetic interpreter and a muse for whom even the most fearsome musical challenges simply don’t exist. Or so she makes it seem. Her performance on Saturday night was, by turns, exuberant, sensitive, aggressive, melancholy, and bracing—sometimes all at once. The fast first and third movements were a blur of notes, phrased with character and musical understanding, while her reading of the extended, lyrical melody in the finale was poignantly understated. And she played it all from memory. The huge ovation that greeted her performance was one of the most deserved of its kind all season.

As one might expect, Mr. Salonen and the BSO were with her every step of the way. It was certainly exciting to hear the BSO take on Mr. Salonen’s distinctive musical language, with its veiled references to composers not often found in the orchestra’s repertoire (like Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, and John Adams). With his extensive background as a conductor, it should come as no surprise that Mr. Salonen’s writing for the orchestra is never short of expert: the Violin Concerto is an essay in ceaselessly inventive timbral and instrumental combinations. Clearly engaged, the BSO played it all with a focus and energy not regularly heard since the heyday of the Levine era.

To be honest, that focus was present all night. Opening the evening, Mr. Salonen led the BSO in a fluid, vibrant performance of Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin. Saturday’s reading was notable for its clear delineation of instrumental textures as well as its emphasis on the score’s more wistful undertones. John Ferrillo was as good as he’s been all year in his florid oboe solos in the first and third movements.

After intermission, Mr. Salonen conducted the BSO in a performance of Stravinsky’s complete ballet, The Firebird. The Firebird is, of course, one of the great, 20th-century orchestral showpieces. When the right conductor comes along, some pretty spectacular musical fireworks can result. On Saturday Mr. Salonen and the BSO made just such a pair: one could be forgiven for leaving the Hall thinking The Firebird to be the greatest piece of music ever written. (After all, maybe it is.)

Esa-Pekka Salonen — One of the precious few world-class conductors who are also world-class composers.

The principle interpretive challenge in concert performances of the full Firebird is making sense of the several intermediate sections that connect the big set pieces (the “Round Dance,” the “Infernal Dance,” etc.). Mr. Salonen and the BSO took the cool approach, emphasizing corresponding motivic and harmonic materials and reveling in Stravinsky’s dazzling array of instrumental colors but never at the expense of narrative detail. The result was an energized reading that packed a visceral punch: the great “Infernal Dance” was ferocious, while the Scherzo (the “Princess’s Game”) was all agility and grace; the concluding “General Thanksgiving” blazed like the summer sun.

In the several bows Mr. Salonen and the BSO were afforded afterwards, it seemed as though a good third or more of the orchestra was acknowledged for their solo work. There were, indeed, many fine turns, James Somerville’s (horn), Alexander Velinzon’s (violin), Cathy Basrak’s (viola), and Jules Eskin’s (cello) among them.

As the BSO searches for its new music director, Mr. Salonen’s name is sure to come up. While he’s probably a long-shot candidate (the administrative business of running an orchestra would demand much of his composing time), any orchestra that has him on their podium for a week or two a season should count itself lucky. It’s a safe bet that he will be back in Boston—in one capacity or another—many times again before the next quarter century runs its course.

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