Saturday 29 March 2014

Esa-Pekka Salonen: Violin concerto at the Barbican

Leila Josefowicz - Photo credit: J Henry Fair
Leila Josefowicz
Photo credit: J Henry Fair

Sibelius, Salonen and Shostakovich: Leila Josefowicz, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Orami: The Barbican Centre
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Mar 26 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Esa-Pekka Salonen's concerto showcased in a programme of Finnish and Russian music

Leila Josefowicz's performance of Esa-Pekka Salonen's 2009 Violin concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Sakari Oramo at the Barbican on 26 March 2014 was breathtaking.

Canadian born Josefowicz moved to California with her family at an early age and started to learn violin from the age of three. Moving to Philadelphia she studied at the Curtis Institute of Music and, in 1994, made her Carnegie Hall debut with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and received an Avery Fisher Career Grant.

She played the first performance of Thomas Adès' 2005 violin concerto Concentric Paths (review of soloist Pekka Kuusisto performing with the Philharmonia Orchestra here) and has collaborated with John Adams and Oliver Knussen. First performed in 2009, Salonen composed his Violin concerto for Josefowicz as a commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Her recording of John Adams' Road Movies (review of Road Movies performed by the Aurora Orchestra here) received a Grammy nomination in 2004, and her recording of the Shostakovich Violin Sonata and Concerto No. 1 received ECHO Award in 2007. She was also made a USA Cummings Fellow, United States Artists in 2007, and in 2008 she was named a MacArthur Fellow for advocacy of new contemporary works for the violin.

Salonen (1958-) was born in Helsinki, Finland, and became interested in conducting and composing while at the Sibelius Academy. Along with Magnus Lindberg and others he founded the group Korvat auki (Ears Open), Avanti! chamber orchestra, and Toimii ensemble where his skills in conducting were much in demand. From then on he has balanced his artistic life between conducting and composing, producing some 37 works for solo, ensemble, and orchestra.

He was the Music Director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1992 until 2009, and retains the position of Conductor Laureate. But he left to spend more time on composition, and is now the Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor for the Philharmonia Orchestra based at the Southbank Centre.

Salonen is interested in composing works that move freely between contemporary idioms, combining intricacy and technical virtuosity with playful rhythmic and melodic innovations. In this interview with Esa-Pekka he talks about his violin concerto, in particular his interest in expanding the expressive range of instruments while retaining their nature and character. One particular example he gives is why he chose to include a rock drum kit. He explains that he was “impressed with agility of rock percussion” and wanted to “create interesting juxtaposition with violin”.

You can also find out more about the violin concerto via an ipad app.

The violin concerto has four movements. The first, Mirage, was a fast scurry, with Josefowicz on her 1724 Del Gesu accompanied by harp and xylophone. This idea was then replayed on flute and there was sense of the violin going backwards before some dark bass chords from the orchestra interrupted and everyone else joined in. The fast pace was unrelenting as the violin idea fragmented and drifted between half speed and acceleration.

Mirage moved seamlessly into Pulse I. Long low notes and harmonics preceded slower descending figures and a 'pulse' from the timpani. A duet between violin and brass added variation before the strings come into play, echoing in high register. Pulse I ended with the violin on her own playing very slow lost harmonics.

Pulse II can only be described as stupidly fast, something akin to scrubbing but scrubbing with tricky rhythms. A violin cadenza followed some double stringed chords before returning to the fast rhythmic idea, this time in duet with violas. This movement required lots of percussion (there were four standard percussionists plus the rock drummer) and conductor Sakari Oramo was very clear about where exactly the beat should go. Pulse II ended suddenly and dramatically, providing an startling contrast to the slow sad tune which began the final movement Adieu.

Adieu seemed to be about contrasts and about the violin trying to be heard amid an orchestra that wants to be doing something else. Time and again the violin reasserted herself only for the orchestra to dominate. In a quieter section it felt as though the violin was slowing winning, but this was followed by an orchestral fortissimo (with an arms out stretch and jump from Oramo). After a cymbal crash the violin was restored to the tune and gentle meandering – ending on a high held note.

In a lovely touch Oramo remained still for a while with his arms still out after the final notes. As he slowly brought his hands down the movement of his arms was mirrored dance-like by Josefowicz.

Also performed was Pohjola's Daughter written in 1905-6 by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). Based on a Finnish myth this tone poem tells the story of Väinämöinen who spots the beautiful Pohjola sitting on a rainbow, weaving a cloth of gold. He falls in love but she refuses to leave with him unless he performs a number of impossible tasks including conjuring a boat from her spindle. Väinämöinen attempts to fulfil these tasks but, humiliated, he is forced to give up and leaves without her.

This performance was beautiful and obviously deeply thought through - both compositionally by Sibelius, and by the conductor and orchestra. Doubling the bass on timpani meant that even in the Barbican you could feel the bass thumping in your chest and, in this multisensory approach, one particular section had the violins playing alternate upstrokes appearing like waves on a story sea or a machine turning relentlessly.

The final piece in the concert was Dmitry Shostakovich's (1906-1975) Symphony no. 5 in D minor. This symphony was written in 1937, during a time when many composers in Russia were suffering under censorship - including possibly Shostakovich himself (symphony no. 4 was withdrawn) - and were under a real threat of death. In this year two of his close friends were arrested, and by the time of the 5th Symphony's premier had been shot. In fact, also in 1937, his mother-in-law, brother-in-law and uncle were arrested, and his sister Maria was exiled to Frunze.

Under this cloud Shostakovich wrote a work full of folk tunes and military marches ranging from emotional homesickness to obscenely loud shrieking which 'beat' round the auditorium. The Largo especially, ran the gamut of emotions from powerful to desolate, then frantic and finally depressed; while the second and final movements recounted fragmentary snatches of folk music. The final coda in D major was resplendent with high strings and piccolo, and, as is only possible with such a large orchestra, was very, very loud.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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