Stirring Sibelius from Salonen

SwitzerlandSwitzerland   Sibelius and Salonen Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Leila Josefowicz (violin) Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Tonhalle Zurich   1.2.15 (JR)

Leila Josefowicz Photo: J. Henry Fair
Leila Josefowicz
Photo: J. Henry Fair


Sibelius:       Pohjola’s Daughter
Salonen:      Violin concerto
Sibelius:       Symphony No. 5


It has been 29 years since Salonen’s last appearance with the Tonhalle in Zurich. Since then of course he has spent many years in Los Angeles and with the Philharmonia in London; and become a composer.

First, though, we were given a dose of Sibelius, his tone poem “Pohjola’s Daughter”. This mystic tale forms part of the Finnish national epic “Kalevala” from which Sibelius drew much inspiration. The brooding mysterious opening set the scene with Rafael Rosenfeld’s splendid cello playing accompanied by three lugubrious bassoons; Salonen’s vigorous conducting highlighted the modernity of this fascinating piece.

Salonen’s compositions have not always found favour with the critics and I personally was not won over by his piano concerto. His violin concerto, however, has impressed many and in the able hands of Leila Josefowicz, for whom the complex work was written a few years ago, it is a winner; this was the Swiss première.  Remarkably she played it from memory; even more remarkably, as I learned from the after-concert talk with both Salonen and Josefowicz, she played the very first rehearsal (in 2009) without the score. There is plenty to interest the listener in this work, exotic percussion, some dark almost Sibelian brooding and a tour de force from the soloist, many passages played exclusively at the very top of the E string. Josefowicz played with palpable emotion, consummate skill and impeccable intonation which visibly impressed the string section of the watching orchestra. The work successfully fuses rhythmic jazzy American elements with a European style; it ends quietly, in a movement entitled “Adieu”, which Salonen told us may have had something to do with his just having reached 50 at the time of composition and having to bid farewell to his youth. Josefowicz rewarded the ecstatic audience with some more Salonen.

Sibelius has not been heard much in Zurich over recent years and so it was a double pleasure to hear a symphony played so stirringly, with such style and skill. The “A” team of principals was in evidence for the orchestra’s Creative Chair (Salonen) and the orchestra’s playing went up several gears. The performance was exemplary, the playing immaculate: I wholly expected Salonen to have this music in his veins, what was surprising however was that the orchestra sounded so natural and so relaxed. It was a pleasure watching Salonen’s elegant and yet forceful conducting style, let us hope he does not give up his day job for composition.

It was however sad to see the Tonhalle so empty for this splendid Sunday afternoon concert, and those who attended were virtually all middle-aged and over.  As snow was falling, I can only think all the youngsters were up in the mountains skiing. To counter this worrying trend and attract a younger audience, the Tonhalle Orchestra has launched a new initiative (in addition to the successful “Tonhalle Late“ concerts which start at 10 and end with a disco) in which unsold seats will be sold – about a week before each event – at substantially reduced prices to all under 25s (and under 35s if they are still studying). I hope it works.

John Rhodes

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