Salonen + Concerto + Josefowicz + San Francisco Symphony = Nirvana

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Salonen, Nielsen: Leila Josefowicz (violin), San Francisco Symphony / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 28.2.2020. (HS)

Leila Josefowicz (c) Brandon Patoc

Beethoven — Overture to King Stephen
Esa-Pekka Salonen — Violin Concerto
Nielsen — Symphony No.5

Orchestra musicians usually rise stone-faced for post-performance bows. But on this occasion they were grinning happily after a memorable rendition of their soon-to-be music director’s rambunctious violin concerto, and a dark, burnished Nielsen Symphony No.5 – more evidence that this partnership with Esa-Pekka Salonen has already clicked.

Salonen – music director designate until he takes the helm from Michael Tilson Thomas officially this fall – kept the ensemble on its toes through the concerto’s range of emotional turns. Leila Josefowicz, for whom he wrote it in 2009, made complex passages fly easily under her fingers and remarkable colors: just the right hues of sweetness here, tragedy there, and a magical combination of ruefulness and acceptance in the quiet finale.

With Salonen on the podium, Josefowicz last played the work with the San Francisco Symphony in 2014 – this orchestra’s only previous performance – and this one was significantly superior, after she had internalized the score’s essence. She applied her seemingly supernatural technical abilities toward coaxing extra nuances out of every phrase. In the opening pages, skittering pointillist gestures appear with minimal or no accompaniment for several minutes, before the full orchestra emerges. It felt like being dropped into the middle of a narrative, pushing forward with momentum that never flagged even when tempos slowed.

The violinist executed quick conversations with various combinations of instruments with precision and palpable humor. Lyrical passages that ended the first movement evaporated like wisps. The slow second movement, with its devilishly difficult double- and triple-stops, flowed with polished smoothness and uncannily accurate intonation. The frenetic third movement belongs more to the excitable orchestra, focusing on an arresting solo turn by principal percussionist Jacon Nissley, who wailed away on a drum set.

In the languid finale, where the pungent material of the first three movements gradually finds resolution, Josefowicz shaped phrases to bring everyone gently to earth. She floated a wispy high harmonic as the last magical chord faded into silence, and the entire audience held its breath.

Music that communicates so directly, so effectively, has been a notable attribute of Salonen’s two concerts this month (already scheduled when his new assignment was announced last year). Even in Beethoven’s hastily written overture to King Stephen – the concert opener – the conductor allowed the rough-textured Hungarian dance to bounce merrily through the orchestra, with an appropriately rustic feel.

In the second half, the communicative theme continued with a stormy reading of the early twentieth-century Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony. Conducted with Scandinavian firmness by the Finnish Salonen, the work emerged with its muscular sonorities intact. The insistent repetitions throughout the orchestra came through vividly, as did the composer’s clear intention to depict things losing traction with reality.

Most gripping was Nissley (again) on various snare drums, initially in the first movement’s insistent little cadence on a pair of drums behind the violins at the left side of the stage. In the second movement, working on drums in the choir loft above the ensemble, his improvised and increasingly unhinged interjections spurred Salonen and the orchestra to play ever louder until the percussionist was drowned out with a glorious chorale in the brass – a stunning moment.

On Salonen’s part, he caught the opening pages’ unsettling obsessiveness as the short phrases passed through the orchestra, brought out lush warmth in the following adagio, and ramped up the tension until the final pages’ soothing warmth. Principal clarinet Carey Bell floated his wistful phrases over the orchestra’s soft chord to bring things to a satisfying conclusion.

Harvey Steiman

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