Esa Pekka Salonen in Cleveland

Last weekend the Finnish conductor/composer Esa Pekka Salonen, Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, guest conducted the Cleveland Orchestra in music by three Russian composers, Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky. Here’s the Plain Dealer’s review. It was a fierce program, starting with Mussorgsky’s original version of “Night on Bald Mountain,” much more elemental and odd than the familiar Rimsky-Korsakov prettied-up version that we know from Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Mussorgsky broke harmonic ground with his use of pentatonic scales and other odd musical sequences, long before the French impressionists thought of it.The second work on the first have was Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings with the pianist Alexander Toradze, with his ten fingers of steel, as the soloist. I was surprised that the piano lasted through three performances, with the beating it took. Subtlety was not among Mr. Toradze’s strengths in this performance, but it was loud and impressive. The audience on Friday night gave a standing ovation. (On the other, these days, what doesn’t get a standing ovation in Cleveland? But that’s a topic for another post.)The second have of the concert was devoted to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). The last time I heard the Cleveland Orchestra perform this work was with Pierre Boulez several years ago. That performance had the kind of icy perfection that one expects from the Cleveland Orchestra, but it was mostly cold and bloodless. Mr. Salonen’s performance was, on the other hand, a little messier, with some rather odd conductorial mannerisms (including a couple of odd ritardandi), but it was much more exciting. This was a performance that one could still glimpse why this work created a riot at its premiere in Paris in 1913. Is there anything that could now provoke such a scandale? Is the contemporary equivalent a stabbing or shooting at a hip-hop concert? Maybe the Robert Mapplethorpe photographic exhibition in Cincinnati? It’s hard to imagine a musical work or ballet creating that kind of sensation. We have seen and heard too much in the intervening ninety years.Here’s a feature interview that the Plain Dealer’s music critic Donald Rosenberg conducted with Esa Pekka Salonen.

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