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New York Philharmonic Features Guest Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen

Guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen with the New York Philharmonic. Photo by Brandon Patoc.

At Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall on the night of Saturday, May 4th, I had the pleasure to attend a splendid concert presented by the New York Philharmonic under the superb direction of the eminent guest conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The events began promisingly with an excellent account of Dmitri Shostakovich’s admirable Concerto No. 1 for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 107, from 1959, featuring the talented soloist, Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Program annotator James M. Keller records that, “The cellist Mstislav Rostropovich collaborated closely with Shostakovich on several works through the years, and it was for him that the composer wrote both of his cello concertos, seven years apart.” In his book Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya, Russia, Music, and Liberty: Conversations with Claude Samuel, the cellist commented:

I have a particularly curious recollection about the Shostakovich First Concerto. When I performed the work for the first time, Shostakovich felt I had come out right all along the line, so he adopted the tempos of my interpretation for the published version of the score. However, five years later, I changed my own interpretation, specifically by speeding up the first movement, which to me seemed better suited to the spirit of the music. In any case, I considered that modification an improvement, and I think Shostakovich shared that feeling. But the “error” of my first interpretation remained in print for posterity.

The initial, Allegretto movement opens playfully—although the propulsive music rapidly becomes more serious—and ends abruptly, while the Moderato that follows is solemn, even lugubrious, and meditative, if with sardonic moments; it builds in intensity before reverting to a more subdued register. The succeeding Cadenza movement is also grave in character, if eventually quite animated and virtuosic. Keller reports that, “In the last movement Shostakovich even worked in a subtle quotation of the Russian folk tune ‘Suliko,’ Stalin's favorite piece of music.” Rostropovich said:

These allusions are undoubtedly not accidental, but they are camouflaged so craftily that even I didn't notice them to begin with. … I doubt if I would have detected this quotation if Dmitri Dmitriyevich hadn't pointed it out to me.

This Allegro con moto becomes spirited, if maybe not without irony. Abundant applause elicited a brief, lovely encore from Kanneh-Mason: his own composition, “Melody.”

The second half of the evening was even more memorable, a marvelous performance of Hector Berlioz’s magnificent Symphonie fantastique: Episode de la vie d'un artiste, Op. 14. The composer prepared a scenario for the premiere of the piece, beginning with this section for the first movement:

Part One: Reveries, Passions — The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted with that moral disease that a well-known writer calls the vague des passions, sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being he has imagined in his dreams, and he falls desperately in love with her. Through an odd whim, whenever the beloved image appears before the mind's eye of the artist, it is linked with a musical thought whose character, passionate but at the same time noble and shy, he finds similar to the one he attributes to his beloved. 

This melodic image and the model it reflects pursue him incessantly like a double idée fixe.That is the reason for the constant appearance, in every movement of the symphony, of the melody that begins the first Allegro. The passage from this state of melancholy reverie, interrupted by a few fits of groundless joy, to one of frenzied passion, with its gestures of fury, of jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations.

The movement opens softly with a brief introduction, then becomes energetic—even, eventually, exuberant—although with reflective passages. This is the section of the scenario for the second movement:

Part Two: A Ball — The artist finds himself in the most varied situations — in the midst of the tumult of a party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beauties of nature; but everywhere, in town, in the country, the beloved image appears before him and disturbs his peace of mind.

This movement, an Allegro non troppo waltz, is melodious and charming and reaches a celebratory climax. Here is the next section of the scenario:

Part Three: Scene in the Fields — Finding himself one evening in the country, he hears in the distance two shepherds piping a ranz des vaches in dialogue. This pastoral duet, the scenery, the quiet rustling of the trees gently brushed by the wind, the hopes he has recently found some reason to entertain — all concur in affording his heart an unaccustomed calm, and in giving a more cheerful color to his ideas. He reflects upon his isolation; he hopes that his loneliness will soon be over. — But what if she were deceiving him! — This mingling of hope and fear, form the subject of the Adagio. At the end, one of the shepherds again takes up theranz des vaches; the other no longer replies. 

The third movement—which was influenced by the Andante from Ludwig van Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony—has a gentle and bucolic, extended introduction, and then becomes increasingly dramatic, eventually returning to the world of its outset, but now with portentous intimations. Here is the following section from the scenario: 

Part Four: March to the Scaffold — Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned and led to the scaffold, and that he is witnessing his own execution. The procession moves forward to the sounds of a march that is now somber and fierce, now brilliant and solemn, in which the muffled noise of heavy steps gives way without transition to the noisiest clamor. At the end of the march the first four measures of the idée fixe reappear.

This exhilarating, even boisterous, march has an appropriately driving rhythm. The final section of the scenario reads thus:

Part Five: Dream of a Witches' Sabbath — He sees himself at the sabbath, in the midst of a frightful troop of ghosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, come together for his funeral. Strange noises, groans, bursts of laughter, distant cries which other cries seem to answer. The beloved melody appears again, but it has lost its character of nobility and shyness; it is no more than a dance tune, mean, trivial, and grotesque: it is she, coming to join the sabbath. — A roar of joy at her arrival. — She takes part in the devilish orgy. — Funeral knell, burlesque parody of the Dies Irae, sabbath round-dance. The sabbath round and the Dies Irae are combined. 

The sinister music here becomes tumultuous, concluding forcefully. The artists deservedly received an enthusiastic ovation.

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