Party Time: Salonen, LA Phil, and Stravinsky’s Rite.

By TIMOTHY MANGAN, Musical America, April 17, 2019

Los Angeles audiences know what to expect when they show up to hear Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct The Rite of Spring with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. They expect a wild good time, an orchestral spectacle, a whomping cataclysm of sound. Salonen takes Stravinsky’s masterpiece as seriously as anyone, discovers more in its teeming textures and rhythms than you can imagine, but he never forgets that the piece is the work of a composer in his 20s feeling his oats and showing off. In Salonen and the LA Phil’s hands, The Rite of Spring is a party piece.

Disney Concert Hall was packed for it Saturday night (April 13), as Salonen returned to begin a three-week residency here. He’s starting it with a not so mini festival called “Salonen’s Stravinsky.” Each of the three programs (each performed twice) has a subtitle. One is subtitled “Faith” (and features sacred works, mostly late) and another “Myths” (a diptych of Orpheus and Persephone). Saturday’s opening program was dubbed “Rituals” and included early and late works, capped by The Rite of Spring.

Stravinsky lived in Los Angeles, some ten miles distance from downtown, longer than in any other place in his life, including his native Russia. He created many of his great works here, including those of his Indian summer, when he embraced serialism in his own inimitable way. Did Los Angeles directly influence his music? Schoenberg lived here concurrently, and then, as now, the city was a thriving center for new music. You’d have to conclude yes.

Salonen, the longest serving music director of the LA Phil and now its conductor laureate, once considered buying Stravinsky’s house, which still stands in the Hollywood Hills. But strolling through the empty rooms, the young conductor/composer got spooked by the ghosts there, especially when he saw the dents left by Stravinsky’s piano still very much evident on the floor.

The hometown crowd welcomed Salonen as it always does these days, as combination favorite uncle and conquering hero. These were his first concerts here since the announcement that he’d be the new music director of the San Francisco Symphony, but there were no hard feelings.

The performance of The Rite came after intermission; nothing could follow it. Salonen’s interpretation of it has changed over the years. It used to be cold, calculated, precise, even grim. Now there’s more meat on its bones, more muscle in its fiber. He takes the slower sections slower, the faster sections faster. He’ll stop to smell the acrid roses and slow to make grand statements and dramatic pauses. The piece becomes more of a concerto for orchestra than a shrine to high modernism.

The conductor unleashed the ensemble Saturday. His motions were clear and authoritative but also easy and flowing, welcoming to the players. Stravinsky’s melodic cells were warmed and curved into almost-singing lines. The brass and percussion were never discouraged and had a field day, the tubas and timpani especially so. The athletic strings made a game of it, but were overmatched. Some of the slow sections, as in the beginning of Part II, lost their forward drive, as everyone seemed to bide their time until the next explosion.

Those explosions had an uncanny, hair-raising quality, as the tempo throttled, the rhythms rocked and grooved, and the orchestra blared. With all this power to burn, Salonen turned Stravinsky’s exclamation points into left hooks. When all was finished and the crowd was roaring, Salonen turned and looked amused then pointed his thumb back at this orchestra as if to say, “Can you believe these guys?”

The first half of the program amused in a different way. It featured a rare performance of Stravinsky’s last ballet, Agon, completed in Los Angeles. The piece brilliantly combines tonal and chromatic harmonies with serial techniques, contrasting and combining them. Scored for a large orchestra, Stravinsky rarely uses it en masse, preferring soloists and odd small groups, such as a solo violin, two trombones and xylophone. A mandolin twangs prominently. French Baroque dance forms from the 17th century give the music its rhythmic impetus and add to its delicately perfumed charms.

Salonen and the orchestra gave it a swift and nimble reading. Before that, they offered the local premiere of Stravinsky’s recently discovered Funeral Song, written as a tribute to Rimsky-Korsakov after his death and among the composer’s earliest works. Dating from 1908, there are intimations of The Firebird in it, some lush scoring and darkly, dramatic utterances. It sounds a bit like Wagner, yes, as the program note suggested, but more like Wagner as filtered through Cesar Franck. At any rate, after a couple of minutes (it lasts around 11), with nothing else to say, the piece begins to sag, and a listener loses interest.

One was left wondering afterwards, how did the composer of that get to The Rite of Spring in five years?

photo: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging