Josefowicz dazzles in Salonen’s Violin Concerto with BSO

April 13, 2012 at 10:45 am

By David Wright

Leila Josefowicz performed Esa-Pekka Salonen's Violin Concerto with Salonen and the BSO Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

You wouldn’t have known it from the advertising for this week’s Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concert, but Esa-Pekka Salonen was making his BSO debut Thursday night.

As a composer, that is.

A sentence tucked away in the program notes revealed that, until Thursday, this orchestra had never played a note by the Finnish maestro, who these days is admired as much for his compositions as for his way with a baton.

That oversight was remedied in spectacular fashion Thursday, as Salonen led the BSO in works by Ravel, Stravinsky, and himself, all of it beautifully done, but with Salonen’s own Violin Concerto taking the prize for expressiveness and sheer dazzle.

Composed in 2008-09, and winner of the 2012 Grawemeyer Award for composition, this highly attractive concerto appears headed straight into the standard repertoire—if a few more violinists as skillful and fearless as Leila Josefowicz can be found to play it.

On Thursday, Josefowicz was on hand to reenact her April 2009 triumph in the concerto’s premiere, with the composer conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  In a program note, Salonen wrote that Josefowicz gave him advice and encouragement throughout the writing of the piece, and that “as a result of that process, this Concerto is as much a portrait of her as it is my more private narrative.”

If that’s the case, then Josefowicz must have an exceptionally intense personality, be it intensely energetic or intensely expressive.  The title of the concerto’s first movement, “Mirage,” might suggest something vague or evanescent, but this music was just the opposite: a razor-sharp violin toccata in constant motion, punctuated by brief bursts of orchestral color.  Just when one was thinking, “This is very fast,” it got even faster.  But there was also a Sibelius-like cool passion to it that one might notice even without knowing this composer’s national origin.

Two sharply-characterized movements, “Pulse I” and “Pulse II,” followed this bracing opener.  In the first, the violin was a lonely Orpheus, singing in long notes amid a white noise of complex string chords and soft, steady timpani strokes.

Then the pulse shifted to a bongo beat—no actual bongos were employed, but seemingly everything else in the percussion arsenal was, as the music grew hotter and hotter, the intrepid Josefowicz hurling herself into slashing double and triple stops while pounding percussion drove the orchestra to a tremendous conclusion.  (Extra points to Thursday’s audience for doing its homework on the piece—not a single errant clap interrupted the deafening silence between this big finish and the actual last movement.)

“Something very Californian in all this,” wrote the composer about “Pulse II,” and the same could be said for orchestral moments elsewhere in the piece where one imagined hearing the thud and hiss of the surf, and for the quasi-cinematic technique of zoom-in, zoom-out on the solo violin, an illusion achieved by amplifying or tapering its tone with matching sonorities in the orchestra.

In the finale, titled “Adieu,” the composer himself seemed to step forward, not to say a weepy goodbye but to express some ambivalent emotions “at the watershed age of fifty,” as he put it, and perhaps also about an event contemporary with this concerto, leaving his longtime post as music director of the L.A. Philharmonic.  He did not go gently in this piece, but worked the orchestra into a rage and drew long passages of dissonant double-stopping from the soloist (played by Josefowicz with uncannily accurate intonation), before closing high and sweet, with a change of harmony hinting at new things to come.

Bookending the concerto on the program were Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin and the complete Firebird ballet by Stravinsky.  Conducting Ravel’s neo-Baroque movements without a baton, Salonen loosely shaped the phrases, de-emphasizing the beat, evoking more the memory of a dance than the dance itself—an intriguing approach, but it made the Menuet in particular feel a little limp.  In this work, Ravel turns often to the oboe for its nostalgic quality; BSO principal John Ferrillo burbled indefatigably in the “Prélude” and danced sinuously in the trio of the closing “Rigaudon.”

Following Salonen’s vivid, fully fleshed-out concerto with a ballet score, even one as imaginative as Firebird, almost seemed a bit of a letdown.  Still, Salonen and the BSO players deliciously realized Stravinsky’s supernatural effects and nocturnal atmosphere, and remained very much in the moment even during the long passages that needed stage action (or the mental image of it) to make sense.  At last, toward the end, the great set pieces familiar from the Firebird suites arrived one after the other, and Salonen drove the orchestra to maximum color and power, to the audience’s delight.

The program will be repeated 7 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday.   617-266-1200.

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