Esa-Pekka Salonen is certainly one of today’s finest and most adventuresome composers. In 2018 the Santa Cruz Symphony under Stewart’s imaginative programming, ventured out into the world of contemporary music by presenting Salonen’s Karawane, a work that incorporates a poem set in synthetic language by Dadaist poet Hugo Ball, by all consideration a huge success. Now the Maestro turned to yet another of Salonen’s musical creations, his eclectic 30-minute Violin Concerto, composed in 2009, in a performance featuring virtuoso Concert Master Nigel Armstrong.
The work reticulates through four, interesting, well calculated movements: Mirage, Pulse I (slow), Pulse II (scherzo), and Adieu. Mirage opened as an aural moto perpetuo mirage in medias res with torrents of rapid violin passages that darted around the subtle accompaniment of celesta, glockenspiel, harp and rich vibraphone chordal projections, as if to tempt the violin into its orchestral web of crepuscular sound. At the approximately two-minute mark the full orchestra entered with its tidal wave of full, ominous texture attempting to overtake the violin’s flight, but to no avail. Armstrong’s lightness served as the counterpoint still uncaught and still evasively darting through sound space with rapid virtuoso gestures against a churning underworld of orchestral sound. The harp served as a drifting kaleidoscope floating above the orchestral sound. At the approximately 7’30” mark, the alien flight of the violin was trapped in the reticent cadenza of harmonics, but not caught.
In Pulse II the concerto revealed an extraordinary range of orchestral color and texture, continuously juxta positioning against the relentless, descending drone beat of Kumiko Ito’s fantastic timpani performance plus with a dense, ominous tremolando string and gong background.
After the second cadenza at approximately 11’45”, the log drum signaled Pulse II — the violin’s escape and resumption of its endless flight through sound space. Large challenging leaps, double and quadruple stops and rapid fire runs hovered above the orchestra and wove through the venue with amazing clarity. Throughout, the brass, winds and percussion with drum set were fantastic creating awesome intensity of the highest sort!
At the ca. 16’ 30” mark I felt the core and emotional soul of the entire work culminating with Adieu, a beautiful, extraterrestrial, mystical meditation. The harp assumed the role of moving drone — entering on the first and fourth eights of the 6/8 measures (hinted at Prokofiev?). Once again the timpani marked time punctuated by percussionist Norman Peck’s two bass drum p to f dynamic interjections. No less than 14 gongs plus 1 tam tam impressively performed by Kris Lou slowly engulfed the venue. Double stop glissandi were effectively performed by Armstrong whose overall performance was as well executed as any to be found. It was a most striking work by soloist and the entire orchestra! Adieu ended with the music gliding away calmly like a thin wisp of smoke. Bravo Maestro Stewart, Nigel Armstrong and entire orchestra for a most artistic performance of a work that other orchestras and violinists of repute should consider adding to their repertoire. Maestro Stewart appears to be the only one who has performed three works by Salonen, I can’t recall an orchestra between San Francisco and Los Angeles that has performed one.
Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D minor was composed in 1885, set in the traditional four movement format. From the opening measures, Stewart and the orchestra took the symphony airborne sweeping through like swift storm clouds and rolling thunder. Stewart never allowed the weight of the material to slow the movement’s progress. He shifted from what might be considered high drama to song seamlessly and without losing Dvořák’s intention of hi-lighting Austro/Germanic and Czech folklore influence. The rhythmic contrasts stood out clearly, one can hear Dvořák juggling his major themes in one magnificent contrapuntal fitting. The impressive woodwind chorale that opened the “poco adagio” set a tone of dignified lyricism. One could sense the Smetana DNA Má Vlast (My Country) connection. The third movement Scherzo: poco meno mosso was so delightfully Czech and danceable that it practically sent the aroma of plněná kuřecí prsa (stuffed chicken breasts) and houskový knedlík (bacon dumplings) through the Mello.
Even at the entrance of the strings, Stewart set a gorgeous glide of instrumental colors in motion with fantastic clarinet, horn, flute, accompanied by plucked strings all melted into a beautiful sound experience. Once again Kumiko Ito’s timpani performance alternating between iambic (weak-strong) and trochee (strong-weak) rhythmic groupings propelled the orchestra. Stewart’s persistence on perfection blended the textures so tightly that the combination of instruments often sounded like one new instrument. Dvořák constructed transparent, delicate textures, and in the hands of Stewart and orchestra, they created quite a beautiful rapture.