Salonen’s love affair with Bruckner’s Sixth continues with the youthful Colburn Orchestra

United StatesUnited States Shostakovich, Bruckner: Hao Zhou (violin), Colburn Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts, Northridge, California, 13.11.2021. (LV)

Hao Zhou playing Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto © Luis Luque

Shostakovich – Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor Op.77

Bruckner – Symphony No.6 in A major WAB 106

A full house, dream demographics, free tickets, a pre-taped message by Los Angeles Dodger broadcasting legend Vin Scully and a classical band on stage ready to go by two minutes after eight. It was the quintessential Valley experience.

The young virtuosos of the Colburn Orchestra came to The Soraya in buses from the Colburn Music School in downtown Los Angeles, across the street from Walt Disney Concert Hall. The big draw was the conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, who has led at least a dozen full concerts as music director of the San Francisco Symphony where he began his tenure in October.

Hao Zhou began Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto slowly, gradually making connections with the audience, less serene and more troubled than his first-prize performance at the Montréal International Competition in 2019 but no less commanding. He let Shostakovich’s enormous imagination loose to tell its stories, not just for each of the four movements but across the horizons of the entire piece. He played the notes with silken tone and Olympian disregard for their difficulties. Salonen was always unobtrusively at his side, respectful of the soloist and the music, making sure the countless key orchestral details and pivot points were attended to without fuss and played precisely in place. The orchestra had been well-prepared in the notes and colors, and Salonen conducted them as if he were acting as their guide on an extraordinary tour, one he enjoyed observing as it all went by.

The audience, which had been wanting to applaud after each of the first three movements, responded at the end as if they had been unleashed – which indeed they had. For many, it was the first live performance in a year and a half.

When they demanded an encore, Zhou played Ysaye’s Sonata No.6 in E major. It is a very long piece for an encore, nearly ten minutes, with a Bachian integrity that pays tribute to everything the Shostakovich is in terms of violinistic-code entails. Zhou let it unfold without driving it hard, and then ratcheted up the tension so that by the end the audience felt unleashed once more.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Colburn Orchestra in Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony © Luis Luque

Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony made sense on the program because he and Salonen are old friends. Salonen has lived with this work since the mid-1980s, including LA Phil performances, the last in 2008; and a reportedly transformative performance in Helsinki in 2019 with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. He had been scheduled to conduct the Sixth later in the year with the Filarmonica alla Scala (since canceled) and the Orchestre de Paris.

Appropriately enough, Salonen told me 30 years ago that learning the Austrian composer’s symphonies meant taking a lot of time ‘to find basic answers to the incredible questions about their form. With any piece of music, one has to live with it until the solutions cease being intellectual and begin becoming organic’. And so, having conducted the Sixth for four decades, it was as if Salonen were lost in watching the score and listening, with a profound sense of inner peace at the way the music was growing. He emerged at times to direct traffic but mostly admired what his young charges were doing with such a large and complex work.

The performance was light and even lyrical (and unusually fast) in the great Adagio, clarifying textures so that the music cruised smoothly along the lines of Bruckner’s form. Though the strings lacked weight and depth of color – it is just their first semester – along with the rest of the orchestra they gave Salonen conviction, ensemble and energy. The woodwinds were world-class in everything they touched. The bassoons in the Shostakovich had been spectacular and were so again in the Bruckner. The brass were ready for Wagner.

With the flow unimpeded by a more conventionally sumptuous Adagio, Salonen was free to get pretty wild in the Scherzo, as abandoned as he ever gets. The way the French horns handled their solos with splendid ecstasy and brilliant intonation must have made the maestro smile, and although the Trio was a little awkward at first, it was as bright-eyed and freshly scrubbed overall as Bruckner can be. Salonen did some ratcheting up of his own in the Finale leaving the audience with just enough energy to get into their cars and hit the freeways.

Laurence Vittes

1 thought on “Salonen’s love affair with Bruckner’s Sixth continues with the youthful Colburn Orchestra”

Leave a Comment