Ma, composer, and Chicago Symphony give Salonen’s Cello Concerto a rousing premiere

March 11, 2017
Yo-Yo Ma and Esa-Pekka Salonen acknowledge applause following the world premiere of Salonen's Cello Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Anne Ryan

Yo-Yo Ma and Esa-Pekka Salonen acknowledge applause following the world premiere of Salonen’s Cello Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Anne Ryan

The most-anticipated event of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s current season took place Thursday night with the world premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Cello Concerto, performed by Yo-Yo Ma under the composer’s direction.

In the current cost-sharing mode of the day the commission was shared by the CSO, the New York Philharmonic, London’s Barbican Centre and the Elbphilarmonie of Hamburg. Ma will take his new concerto to New York next week.   

In addition to being one of the CSO’s most popular and illuminating podium guests, Salonen is a consistently intriguing composer. His finest works (LA Variations, Insomnia, Nyx, and his Violin Concerto) display a quirky intelligence at work, Salonen wielding the color and sonic possibilities of vast symphonic forces with audacity as well as delicacy.

Though cast in the traditional three movements, Salonen’s Cello Concerto is anything but traditional, as the composer laid out in his informal, user-friendly introduction.

The first movement depicts a kind of stylized chaos, says Salonen, with “the concept of a simple thought emerging out of a complex landscape.” The opening music has a floating cosmos-like mystery, orchestral waves cresting and falling with shimmering high percussion.

With the soloist’s entrance it becomes clear that Yo-Yo Ma was the inspiration for this music. The long-limbed, expressive solo lines are tailor-made for the cellist; played with great lyrical warmth and sensitivity by Ma, this movement offer some of Salonen’s most intimate and beautiful music to date. The textures for soloist and orchestra gradually become more playful, faster and briefly agitated before returning to the inward solace of the opening.

Ma often likes to explore rarefied degrees of pianissimo and the second movement seems to reflect that quality. The solo cello floats plaintive tendrils of notes against equally hushed orchestral textures in the orchestra, including a duetted passage with alto flute. The solo lines loop electronically in real time, creating a haunting echo effect with the wispy strands of music fitfully hovering on the edge of audibility.

Ma gets to unleash his full technical arsenal in the final movement, which begins attacca, with swirling orchestral textures. Here there is a clear sense of titanic struggle, with the soloist’s music turning gnarly and aggressive, erupting into a cadenza of metallic virtuosity. The solo cello engages a dialogue with bongos and congas (placed near the front of the stage to better project). The music grows increasingly wild and unhinged, but gradually quietens to close the concerto on a high cello B flat enhanced by electronic radiance.

Salonen mentioned in his opening remarks that his Cello Concerto took two years to complete, which is unusually long for him. Indeed, at first hearing Thursday, one got the sense that–despite many attractive qualities–Salonen’s concerto has not quite realized its final form.

The opening movement is engaging, brilliantly orchestrated, and skillfully twines soloist and orchestra. Yet the second movement feels thin and calculated–even a bit gimmicky, with its how-low-can-you-go dynamics. (Salonen draws on his solo cello work ...knock, breathe, shine… for some material in this and the final movement.) 

The hard-driving finale has ample exhilaration and constant hurdles for the soloist. Yet the movement seems overlong and discursive with the sections not holding together convincingly. The bongo and conga drumming was more visually striking than musically germane.

No reservations about this premiere performance. Yo-Yo Ma attacked the solo part with alarmingly ferocity as well as evocatively teasing out the ruminative passages. The electronic component appeared to work seamlessly and Cynthia Yeh handled her prominent percussion role with typical musical equanimity. Under the composer’s direction, the CSO delivered a polished, powerful and atmospheric performance, which will be hard to match by subsequent ensembles.

The Adams-Stravinsky focus of Salonen’s program last week continued with works of each composer framing the evening.

After conducting The Rite of Spring last week, Salonen turned to Stravinsky’s preceding ballet, Petrushka, Thursday night.

If the Finnish conductor’s refined and lucid Rite was viewed through the French prism of the work, his full-blooded Petrushka was all Russian from start to finish.

Rarely will one hear as vivid and richly characterized a performance as that delivered by the CSO under Salonen Thursday night. The ballet of the tragic title puppet, his fruitless love for the Ballerina, and abuse by the Moor, unfolded with a flowing, natural momentum. Salonen consistently drew out the drama as well as the macabre humor and antique charm. With fine transparency and acute balancing, Stravinsky’s kaleidoscopic scoring gleamed and glistened.

Individually and as a unit, the CSO covered themselves in glory in this performance, notably principal flute Stefan Ragnar Hoskuldsson and pianist Patrick Godon.

But it was hard not to focus on the evening’s principal trumpet. Appearing in the first chair for the second week in a row was Thomas Hooten, principal of Salonen’s old ensemble, the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Hooten’s playing of the prominent trumpet role was norhing short of spectacular– richly projected with gleaming tone and consistently stylish and attentive to the narrative.  If the past two weeks were an audition to fill the chair left vacant by the departed Christopher Martin, Hooten passed with flying colors.

Music of John Adams opened the evening, continuing the CSO’s two-week celebration of the composer’s 70th birthday, following last week’s Chicago premiere of his Scheherazade.2. 

Written in 1995 and scored for large orchestra, Slonimsky’s Earbox was a transitional work for Adams. While there are echoes of his early, chugga-chugga minimalism, the textures are more complex and the music more vigorously contrapuntal. Slonimsky’s Earbox may not explore profound depths but no living American composer writes for vast forces with the bravado and panache of Adams. Salonen kept the sonic tumult clear and incisive in this 13-minute showpiece, leading a dynamic and boisterous performance in this belated CSO premiere.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.


Leave a Comment