Can a piece of music be too big to fail? The latest work by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Finnish composer and conductor who is currently music director of the San Francisco Symphony, has a startling number of what politicians like to call “stakeholders”: The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice (which gave the premiere on January 13), the Berlin Philharmonic, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the NDR Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg have all shelled out for Salonen’s new “Sinfonia concertante for organ and orchestra.” Besides these six orchestras, Salonen is working with two of the best organists in the world on his piece, Iveta Apkalna and Olivier Latry. According to a press release, the Katowice premiere inaugurated the “largest new concert instrument in Europe.” Meanwhile, the Elbphilharmonie is presenting the (cringe-inducingly named) “Multiverse Esa-Pekka Salonen,” a series of concerts between September 2022 and May 2023 culminating with another performance of the “Sinfonia concertante.”
Salonen is not the only composer-conductor—and it is often composer-conductors—who takes on commissioning projects so global they seem destined to be administered by some little-known United Nations subcommittee. George Benjamin’s opera “Written on Skin,” for example, was co-commissioned by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Netherlands Opera, Maggio Musicale Florence, and Théâtre du Capitole Toulouse; Thomas Adès’s orchestral piece “Polaris” was commissioned by the New World Symphony, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Barbican in London. This phenomenon is a double-edged sword for the few composers prestigious enough to get such commissions: They receive more money and more time to concentrate on a single work, but are under greater pressure to produce a successful piece. For the majority of composers local to cities like Katowice, Helsinki, Paris, Hamburg, Berlin, and Los Angeles, it’s just another door slammed shut.
I saw the “Sinfonia concertante” at the Berlin Philharmonic on Thursday, January 19, with Salonen conducting and Latry playing the organ solo. The concerto is divided into three movements. The first, titled “Pavane and Drones,” opens with a beautiful timbral combination, blending piccolo with crystalline high organ stops. Unfortunately, the main idea threaded through this movement consists mainly of noodling, atonal melodic material passed among different orchestral groups. This material is uniquely ill-suited to the organ: because each key is simply either on or off on the instrument, it can be hard to make phrases out of an undifferentiated stream of notes. (On top of this, the material is ornamented with the occasional, seemingly random trill, a pet-peeve of mine, if only because I used to be a flutist.) But the real problem in “Pavane and Drones” is in the way this material is poised awkwardly between texture and melody, like a tightrope walker using all her skill to avoid falling into two equally appealing, luxurious foam pits. For this cascade of pitches to truly become texture, Salonen would need to coagulate it; maybe he would also need to steer it more decisively in a single direction. For the same material to become melody, Salonen would need to sculpt it down, hew it into something starker and more tangible. There are some recognizably repeated melodic cells within Salonen’s streams of pitches, but they are overwhelmed by the extraneous notes—more than melody, less than texture, the no-man’s land of figuration.
“Pavane and Drones” has some nice moments: I don’t know exactly what divisi structure Salonen is using in the strings, but it’s effective, making the Berlin Philharmonic sound at once thick and translucent. It’s also thrilling to hear Latry outmatch the entire orchestra from his seat at the organ—he’s playing the entire building. After a rather traditional concerto climax, Latry plays a pedal tone so low the hall almost moves. Unfortunately, Salonen wastes his opportunity here, and moves on too quickly. Olivier Messiaen and Olivier Latry know better: at the climax of Messiaen’s organ piece “Apparition de l’église éternelle,” the organist plays the church-shaking C Major chord for a full 22 seconds.
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The second movement of Salonen’s “Sinfonia concertante,” “Variations and Dirge,” opens with a single bowed crotale: a pretty sound, if a little new-music-circa-2012. Salonen clearly means the term “Variations” in the classical sense, and to his credit, the rich string melody that follows the crotale note is easy to follow in its various developments. That’s an even greater achievement considering the melody is atonal, with few intervallic combinations that are striking on their own (a few days later, I can remember almost nothing about it), and Salonen orchestrates the variations well.
This movement includes directionless figuration like the first, creating thematic unity out of uninspiring material. The organ cadenza that ends it is the best section of the entire piece: scored in a mellow, gauzy range, it abandons figuration for thoughtful explorations of intervals and timbre. A better piece takes place in an alternate dimension.
The final movement, “Ghost Montage,” works with more recognizable, discrete melodic cells. This solves the problem of the first movement; Salonen has picked a side. But these more traditional motives introduce another problem. The movement sounds a tad too much like a Hollywood car-chase sequence, with penetrating string octaves and virtuosic rising sequences in the organ. It’s also loud throughout and, as anyone who has sat next to a booming phone conversation on the subway knows, volume has a way of amplifying annoyance. At least, the “Sinfonia concertante” doesn’t end with an applause-baiting bang.
Nevertheless, the applause was loud and enthusiastic for “Sinfonia concertante” after its Berlin premiere. If audiences in Katowice, Paris, Hamburg, Helsinki and Los Angeles respond similarly, the commissioning consortium will get its money’s worth. The Multiverse expands.
For my part, I was glad to head to Ultraschall, the Berlin festival of contemporary music, the following evening. Some of the pieces were much, much better than Salonen’s, and yet they were still small enough to fail. ¶
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