NZSO: Salonen’s Violin Concerto points in a fruitful, inspiring direction; Schubert’s Greatness persists through 200 years

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Edo de Waart with Jennifer Koh (violin)

Esa-Pekka Salonen: Violin Concerto
Schubert: Symphony No 9 in C, D 944 (‘Great’)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 8 November, 6:30 pm

Here was another NZSO concert that merited a bigger audience. Again, as at the 24 October concert, the gallery was well inhabited but the stalls rather sparse. A concert that is dominated by a very long work, unless by Mahler or perhaps Bruckner, suffers from a lack of variety and there needs to be a smaller, first-half piece that will overcome it, probably a familiar and well-loved concerto.

Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen is well-known as a conductor, but few would have heard any of the compositions he has been writing in an effort to establish a different career, and to contribute to a repertoire of more accessible music. But he may not yet be widely known, and it was unlikely that a much admired, and even popular violin concerto by him would thus get the kind of reception accorded to Beethoven, Tchaikovsky or Sibelius. Predictably, a couple of acquaintances remarked adversely about it at the interval.

Salonen’s Violin Concerto was written on the eve of his departure from 17 years as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 2009. It was commissioned by The Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, among others, as a collaboration between Salonen and Canadian violinist Leila Josefowicz, who played the first performance. United States violinist Jennifer Koh, comparably alive to and inspired by the music’s character, played here. The programme notes quote his remarks at the time, writing that his move to the United States caused him to question the assumptions that his experiences in Europe had taught him: inter alia, to “avoid melody, clear harmonic centres and clear sense of pulse … over here I was able to think about this rule that forbids melody. It’s madness!”

So the concerto avoids most of the forbidding characteristics of a lot of music written in the past half century; yet it could never be heard as other than very ‘contemporary’. The first movement, Mirage, is far from what that word suggests; it’s hectic and energetic, a “razor-sharp violin toccata in constant motion”, Alex Ross called it. The solo violin opens as if in mid-flight and it’s soon joined by, first, subtle celeste sounds, then glockenspiel and vibraphone and some ringing chords from the harp.

Flutes and clarinets were added and then brass, along with prolonged string chords (noticing that Concert Master Vesa-Matti Leppänen’s place was taken by associate concert master Donald Armstrong while his place was taken by Martin Riseley). However, it’s the woodwinds and celeste that are the soloist’s main companions in the semiquaver department, though Koh was vividly centre stage, playing constantly through the near ten minutes of the first movement for all but a dozen or so measures.

The sound was uniquely Salonen, and I came to feel delight as the music of the first movement stormed along, steadily gaining familiarity, helped by the changes of tempo from time to time.

Two Pulses and Adieu
The next two movements are entitled Pulse I and II, driven in turn by an astonishing refinement in the singular orchestration, and then in Pulse II by an utterly different impulse, a sort of concerto grosso for violin and drum kit. It employed the log drum and other percussion again, acquiring the character of rock music by engaging with the jazz or rock percussion, including cymbals, tom-toms and occasionally vibraphone and marimba. And at the end the drum set is told to ‘go crazy’.

The finale, Adieu, is the longest movement, beginning with a quiet, dreamy solo violin, accompanied tellingly by solo viola, soon joined by bassoon, harp and quite prominently, cor anglais. Finally we heard from the battery of tuned gongs suspended behind the horns. As elsewhere in the concerto there were sounds, especially combinations of instruments, whose source eluded me, individually or in ensemble: from the gongs, vibraphone, harp, celeste…: their spirit was no less haunting than those in the elusive Pulse I. Edo de Waart knew how to exploit and enhance these beauties and managed it all with full attention to clarity, balance and expressiveness.

For me, this enchanting, energetic work epitomised the feelings I’ve long had, winning lively disapproval from avant-garde quarters, lamenting the prolonged dominance of music over the past century by determinedly difficult, academic, melody-free music. For this was a happy combination of the refined, deeply felt, sophisticated music from Europe, and some of the music of America which has been closer to popular roots and a better awareness of the likely death of classical music through intellectual, esoteric, universities-driven ideas. And it was played by a stunning young violinist evidently steeped in the idiom, with impressive conviction and a deep belief in the music’s worth and importance.

The Great Symphony
Schubert’s ninth symphony is one of music’s great masterpieces, and though I love Schubert’s music, there are features of this last symphony that give me a bit of trouble. The numbering of the symphonies is one interesting topic (there are perhaps three incomplete or perhaps non-existent ‘symphonies’ which would make The Great No 12 if they were counted); but of more musical concern is a matter the programme note ventured to discuss: the many repeats of melodies, without interesting development. Ever since the work’s discovery by Schumann in 1838, there have been questions about Schubert’s repetitive melodies that lacked change and variety. A common defence has been that Schubert was more interested in variety through tonal modulation, which scholars have pointed out was not common in the 19th century.

The first movement makes its claim to greatness right at the start with horns opening the 4-minute-long Andante: warm, legato sounds conjured a wonderful sense of peace. The brass section as a whole, that is the trumpets, trombones as well as horns, sounded unusually rapturous, building expectations of something portentous in the main body of the movement, Allegro ma non troppo. The pace, the dotted rhythms and the magnificent balance maintained by De Waart throughout, quickly created an expectation of a near hour of musical fulfilment and inspiration.

The Andante con moto marches at a steady pace gaining interest, as usual, through modulations that were not a common feature at the time, but making a profound impression: particularly the lengthy preparation for the stunning, dissonant climax in the middle of the movement, dramatically delivered. After that, the remaining half of the movement generated a sense of peace and beauty that never seemed too long.

Each movement is around a quarter of an hour, and after the slow movement, the formally repetitive Scherzo and Trio can sound too mechanical. Yet there are constant modulations, and one’s response depends on one’s openness to them; after all, the shift from C to A major at the Trio might hardly sound very exciting.

The repetition affair has, for me, been a noticeable matter in only some performances; and this was not one of them. There’s never any problem with the first ten minutes or so of a Schubert movement, and in the finale, Allegro vivace, audiences can read some kind of message in the famous Beethoven quote early in the second part of the movement. Beethoven is also there with Schubert’s use of trombones which had only just been used by Beethoven for the first time. The splendidly calm pace added to the sense of grandeur and contentment.

At a certain point the last movement might seem to repeat its main themes too often, but if you are presented with a performance from a conductor like De Waart who grasps the entire structure and is capable of investing it with grandeur and spiritual conviction, those repetitions actually help sustain it. And they speak to any listener with open ears and capable of perceiving genius in a work of art. Even a self-effacing composer like Schubert surely knew that his symphony was a masterpiece and an imposing sequel to Beethoven’s. That’s certainly what I experienced, and I felt exhilarated, deeply moved and at peace at the end.


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