Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Salonen: Out of Nowhere

I owned and enjoyed Esa-Pekka Salonen's brilliant Violin Concerto (2009) before I purchased the app containing an exciting portion of it, The Orchestra. It was about my third listening to the piece after I acquired it earlier this year on a 2012 premiere CD that I decided it ranks with most other great compositions in this form throughout classical music history. It is an outstanding piece of music that is sophisticated and moving, vigorous and contemplative. This music validates contemporary classical music in a flagship manner. You have to go back decades to find anything of equal comparison. Such a rare greatness.

The greatest concerto for violin ever composed was by Ludwig van Beethoven in 1806. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed several great ones with the Violin Concerto No. 3 (1775) being my favorite. Other brilliant concertos for violin include those by Felix Mendelssohn (1844), Johannes Brahms (1884), Jean Sebelius (1903), Alban Berg (1936), Bela Bartok's No. 2 (1938), and John Adams (1993). I would place the Salonen effort in this company, like all of them, below Beethoven. How exciting it is for such great music to be freshly composed!

The concerto (see it on youtube in two parts here and here) begins with Mirage an 8 and half minute movement. The solo violin is stated organically with xylophone and similar percussion instruments until the full orchestra is summoned in a wealth of sound featuring high pitched flutes triumphant. The second and third movements, known as Pulse 1 and Pulse 2, are comparatively brief but full of lightning. They are featured in the app The Orchestra. The first time I heard Pulse 2 I was astonished. It still grips me with its powerful rock and roll style of composition. The finale is aptly designated as Adieu and lasts 12 minutes. Nothing spectacular here but nevertheless a strong, interesting orchestration winding through occasional jazzy realms by various horns before the whole orchestra just finally fades away.

Salonen has been a talent I have appreciated for many years. After a long period where his conducting duties, predominantly with the LA Philharmonic, demanded most of his time, he has now reversed the priorities of his career. He composes much more these days and now only occasionally conducts. As I have mentioned before, he is the most direct heir of Witold Lutoslawski, a composer I admire above all others in more recent classical composition.

Given this relatively late transition into "full time" composition, Salonen has a comparatively small body of work. In my collection I have him conducting Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok, and, of course, Lutoslawski. I own all of his currently available compositions on CD. They were all released in this century. LA Variations was released in 2001 and features five compositions. Wing On Wing followed in 2005 with three orchestral pieces. In 2008 he released the CD featuring Helix for Orchestra which I previously blogged about. Then there is the 2012 release, Out Of Nowhere, I mentioned above. Four CD's of mostly strong classical compositions overall. In addition I have another CD which features some piano compositions by Salonen, Lutoslawski, and Steven Stucky.

LA Variations (1997) is an interesting 20-minute modern full orchestral form. It is a solid composition as are several others on the CD, most notably an early Salonen composition, Giro for Orchestra (1981, a 10-minute movement) and Gambit for Orchestra (1998, 9-minutes). Wing on Wing (2004) is the title composition on Salonen's second CD. It surpasses LA Variations as an excellent 26-minute movement for orchestra. It features ethereal double-saprono vocals. It pushes boundaries with an interesting spoken word section as the orchestra creates a sphere for the words. The movement is a complete concept, a really impressive work. Foreign Bodies (2001) is another strong orchestral effort; three uneven movements over about 20-minutes displaying compositional competence in all areas of orchestration. Insomnia (2002, 21-minutes) is another sophisticated, melodic, often bombastic movement for orchestra. A memorable composition.

Salonen's third CD began with the wonderful Helix for Orchestra (2005) which I enthusiastically reviewed when I first heard it. His Piano Concerto (2007) is one of his weaker efforts, in my opinion. It rumbles around in the lower register all the time, brooding, and is a muddling experience. Dichotomie (2000) is an interesting solo piano piece, but again we have more of a muddled mess than anything. Out of Nowhere contains the brilliant Violin Concerto which is accompanied on the CD by Nyx (2010), another extended orchestral movement by Salonen. Nyx is a highly accessible, at times sensual, at times anxious. It isn't better than, say, Wing On Wing, but it is more classic and textured and competent enough to stand alongside the Violin Concerto. For that reason, I cannot recommend Out of Nowhere enough to anyone interested in introducing themselves to contemporary classical music. It is one of the must-own CDs of this century to date.

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