Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jeremy Denk, Claire Chase and the SFS take wing with colorful bird music

United StatesUnited States Various, ‘Exotic Birds’: Jeremy Denk (piano), Claire Chase (flute), San Francisco Symphony / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 17.10.2021. (HS)

Claire Chase playing Saariaho’s Oiseaux exotiques (c) Kristen Loken

DebussyPrélude à L’après-midi d’un faune; La mer

MessiaenOiseaux exotiques

SaariahoAile du songe

Whether you like your birds swooping and singing gracefully or squawking raucously, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s fine-feathered San Francisco Symphony program had something to lift one’s spirits. It sandwiched aviary works by Olivier Messiaen and Kaija Saariaho between more familiar outdoor fare by Claude Debussy, and one could not have asked for a brighter gleam or punchier flair from the orchestra and soloists.

The centerpieces were Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques (Exotic Birds) from 1952 and Saariaho’s Aile du songe (Wing of the Dream) from 2001, which managed to outshine the outstanding performances of Debussy’s better-known tone poems, La mer and Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune.

Birdsong formed much of Messiaen’s music, but he rarely made it sound like the birds were voicing it. In this work his exotic ornithology transmuted birdsong into colorful music for piano, brass and percussion, doing away with strings entirely. It shaped up as a punchy, enthusiastic squawk-fest.

Jeremy Denk dived into the piano’s difficult chords and bold gestures with virtuosity and high spirits, trading big musical gestures with pods of various instruments arrayed around him – three clarinets and a flute here, horns and trumpets there, plus a cluster of drums, gongs, tam-tam, glockenspiel and xylophone. The effect was endlessly startling, clangorous, a dawn chorus multiplied exponentially until the final series of spicy, staccato chords brought things to a close.

Saariaho’s irresistible work debuted in 2001, a year after her breakthrough opera, L’amour de loin, created a more poetic and lyrical effect. Its rich nuances served to introduce San Francisco audiences to flutist Claire Chase, one of eight ‘collaborative partners’ enlisted by Salonen to rethink what a symphony orchestra can be. An athletic presence, she used her body to twist and gesture broadly as she produced gorgeous and evocative melodic lines, effortlessly peppering the music with effects like flutter-tonguing and vocal interjections.

The French poet Saint-John Perse’s verses, which used bird allusions to muse on the human spirit, inspired the composer’s five-movement work. Saariaho evokes birds more generally than Messiaen did. The flute music glides serenely, describes curlicues and seems to take wing against sleek and satiny chords in the smoothly fashioned orchestra, all strings and soft percussion. The last two movements paint a smile-worthy picture of a legendary bird returning to its home with a dancing musical gesture that gradually spreads throughout the orchestra, finishing with a section that marches with a steady gait as effectively as the aerobatics in the first three movements.

A delicately played solo by Lorna McGhee (principal flutist of the Pittsburgh Symphony) opened the concert with Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune, expanding into leisurely paced but never flagging moments of jewel-like beauty. Two hours later, the broad-beamed chords of an expanded brass section brought the concert to a close with a thrilling traversal of La mer. Attention to detail added depth to the piece’s big gestures – as fine an account of this music that I have heard.

What stood out to me in all these works was the flow that Salonen drew from the orchestra, with and without strings, big ensembles and small. He shaped tone, color, phrasing and pace into something that felt utterly natural. It brimmed with personality while adhering to each composer’s style. Combined with the refreshing programming, this is shaping up as a memorable 2021-22 season.

Harvey Steiman

1 thought on “Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jeremy Denk, Claire Chase and the SFS take wing with colorful bird music”

  1. Thanks for the review. Glad you mentioned the flutist in the Prelude. It was a nuanced performance. I’m assuming that the guest principals this season are being vetted for an appointment to the principal spot in the SFSO, but just my guess.


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