March 20, 2001

MUSIC REVIEW, New York Times

Esa-Pekka Salonen Serves Stravinsky -- Breezy, Fresh and Crunchy


Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Sunday.








Esa-Pekka Salonen, who is in his ninth season as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, does not patronize audiences. He is convinced that if he and his players are excited by important and challenging contemporary works, audiences will respond. His success in Los Angeles suggests he is right. The orchestra's recent Stravinsky festival there drew sold-out houses to six concerts.

This weekend Mr. Salonen presented two of those programs at Lincoln Center. Sunday afternoon's concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic offered all three of the seldom-heard Stravinsky works for piano and orchestra, performed by the brilliant pianist Olli Mustonen, and one repertory piece, "The Firebird." The artistic consultants at most of American's major orchestras would likely have warned Mr. Salonen against presenting such a formidable program on tour. New York music lovers must be hungry for challenge, since they don't get much from the New York Philharmonic. Avery Fisher Hall was nearly full, and the final ovations were tumultuous.

Stravinsky's work for piano and orchestra are almost anti-concertos. By its scoring alone, the Concerto for Piano and Winds (1924) is unconventional. It presents Stravinsky in his neo-Baroque mode, though with crunchy harmony, pummeling rhythm and craggy counterpoint. In the beguiling and stylistically eclectic Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra (1929) Stravinsky evokes, in his fractured way, both breezy Poulenc-like salon music and exotic modal Hungarian gypsy dance. "Movements" for Piano and Orchestra (1959) is one of Stravinsky's astringent and striking works in the 12-tone idiom. It's as if an elaborate piano concerto has been compressed into 10-minutes of chiseled, restless and elemental music.

To appreciate how seldom these works turn up, consider their performance history at the New York Philharmonic. The orchestra played the Capriccio two years ago under Kurt Masur, its first performance of the work since 1973; it has never performed the other two.

Mr. Salonen and Mr. Mustonen, both being young, Finnish and composers, proved to be natural collaborators. Their performances were integrated and purposeful. Mr. Mustonen's very fluidic arm movements should not be taken as a sign of pianistic flamboyance. His playing was typically incisive, intelligent and spontaneous.

That Mr. Salonen's orchestra seemed so at home with Stravinsky's music would not have surprised anyone who attended Friday's night's substantial chamber music program at Alice Tully Hall by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, which Mr. Salonen conducts. The highlight was an amazing performance of "Abraham and Isaac," a pungent 12-tone setting of the biblical story, in Hebrew, for baritone and chamber orchestra, here sung poignantly and with the intensity of an Old Testament prophet by Sanford Sylvan, who performed the formidable work from memory.

Though arresting to hear, and impressively played, Mr. Salonen's performance of "The Firebird" ballet score would not have been easy to dance to. Once the tempo of a section was set, it was unyielding. Episode after episode of this familiar music seemed startlingly fresh, the result, it seemed, of a composer/conductor's reconsideration of a score he clearly considers a landmark of early 20th-century modernism. That Mr. Salonen's audience was no gathering of Stravinsky fanatics became clear when the blazing climax of the "Infernal Dance" was met with scattered applause and bravos from people in the hall who mistakenly thought the performance was over.

As his second encore, Mr. Salonen played Stravinsky's dazzling and somewhat mischievous arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Since people were already on their feet for the standing ovation, they just kept standing for the national anthem. But no one sang. They were too busy listening.