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Drawing the line between centuries: from Biber via Beethoven and Mahler to Unsuk Chin

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Credits: Mika Ranta

Philharmonia/Esa-Pekka Salonen,12 and 15 April 2018, Royal Festival Hall

Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra Esa-Pekka Salonen has an interesting idea about the line that connects the composers of previous centuries to modernity. His vision is that this line physically stretches between figures like Mozart and Beethoven and us every day, and in principle there could be a point in future when it snaps. This opinion does not mean that this music will no longer be heard, but it presumes that it might become less relevant for future generations and step down into the shadow of researched music for specialists. One may dispute this view, but this consciousness of musical history being a living body is very characteristic for Salonen both as a composer and a conductor. On the one hand, he seems to treat composers he conducts very personally and without unneeded reverence, on the other hand, he always thinks of his own place in this imaginary line of music produced in the course of human history. Such self-positioning with regard to music of previous generations undoubtedly means a specific kind of effort on the part of the conductor. Salonen finds it essential to modernize the sound of well-known classical pieces, to bring new details to works that were written relatively recently (20th century) and to promote and explore the works of modern composers. Two programmes of Philharmonia offered a glimpse of these activities condensed into two evenings. They were additionally contextualized by two talks focusing on composers of the programmes, that allowed several days of 10-15 April 2018 to become an immersive experience into current engagements of Philharmonia and its principal conductor.

On 10th and 11th April 2018 Philharmonia had two events preceding their London appearance – concerts in Leicester and Basingstoke. The Leicester one also had an open rehearsal and an inside talk with Esa-Pekka Salonen followed by presentation of their 2018/19 programme outside London from Jonathan Mayers. If a specific interpretation is formed and forged during the initial meetings between an orchestra and a conductor, the final rehearsal before the actual concert reveals the atmosphere, the existing connection and the style of music-making already normalized through preceding hours of work. The rehearsal of Philharmonia was simultaneously light and intense, interspersed with some usual funny comments from Salonen and his occasional remarks of how a particular instrument should sound or be balanced with another group of instruments in the orchestra. When the soloist David Fray appeared, he seemed to not fully belong to this tightly-knit group, and in a way that feeling was a precursor to the general impression from his performance with Philharmonia which somehow stood apart from the second half of the programme.

Esa-Pekka Salonen and John Florance during the talk in Leicester

The talk that the presenter from BBC Radio Leicester John Florance had with Esa-Pekka Salonen was insightful and friendly, albeit rather short. The main theme that transpired from it was this feeling of personal contact that Salonen has with each composer he puts on his programme. For him they are not ‘classical’ in the sense that they limit the conductor by the fact that they are part of an established musical canon. Salonen researches the biographies of each composer and then applies this knowledge to the score that he does not only read and accept, but usually searches thoroughly for moments that could have gone differently and tries to understand why the final work has got its resulting shape. The works in a composer’s output are always weighed up by him according to a particular life period they were written in and through matching of the result to possible intentions of the author while composing the piece. Thus, Salonen admitted that Mahler’s 8th Symphony never rang completely true to him however much he liked the ‘good noise’ it produced and seemed more an intentional statement of ‘Germanness’ from the composer. In the meanwhile, the pieces that were on the programme – Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 2 (which is in fact his first piano concerto) and Mahler’s Symphony No 1 – were interesting for Salonen from the perspective of both being the attempts from young composers to provoke the contemporary public. Salonen gave an example from the third movement of Beethoven’s Piano concerto showing how even in a short passage of notes Beethoven challenged listeners’ usual expectations of rhythm. Mahler went even further: being a stranger to the community of audiences that were going to listen to his first symphony, he allowed a rather volatile mix into his piece that was to show his listeners that he dared to openly challenge them. The provocations ranged from parodies of klesmer melodies that were not to be heard before in a classical music hall to the inclusion of ländler danses and even a French song ‘Frère Jacques’ extravagantly re-made into a funeral match. Thus, it was indeed an ‘astonishing jumble of styles’, according to the impression of a certain Alma Schindler at the time of hearing it. And this mix, it seems, is something that inspires Salonen. This is the musical ground that is light and varied enough to allow multiple shifts and turns, where the approach could both be playful and gather momentum for frequent explosions. The modern audiences are, on the one hand, no longer irritated or shocked by these sounds, and, on the other hand, don’t expect to have a life-changing experience as with the other Mahler’s symphonies, so this is the case where the sparkling interpretation is indeed called for.

Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen, 12th April 2018

And now that Philharmonia tours with the programme that has different pieces in the first half but always features Mahler 1, after the performance at the Royal Festival Hall on 12 April it is easy to see why it brings so many positive responses from the audiences including standing ovations in Paris and Essen. The symphony allowed the conductor to be fully in his element, and gave space for exuberance of interpretation that some European reviewers found dangerous for the overall structural balance of the piece but compelling through its inner force and energy. This symphony seems to manage to delve into all possible realms of existence (according to Mahler, the symphony should encompass the whole world), but always with elements of playfulness and vigour that would develop into something different in the composer’s later works. Additionally, where Mahler aimed for the jumble of styles, Salonen was eager to exaggerate this intention by abrupt changes in dynamics of sound not only between the four movements that sounded strikingly different from one another, but also within the movements themselves. He also intentionally highlighted the solos from particular instruments in the orchestra, such as, for instance, the famous moment when the double bass plays the ‘Frère Jacques’ melody in minor key. These intentional abrupt changes resulting in the constant emotional roller coaster in Salonen’s and Philharmonia’s interpretation inspired the audiences in London and in other European cities immensely, as some visible freshness of approach was heard here. The general impression of the symphony was growing incrementally, however intentionally de-stabilized its interpretation was, with the physical drive and sheer delight of being in the hall increasing from the second movement onward to the finale.

Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen, 12th April 2018

The thought also came to mind that not all conductors have the same protean qualities as Salonen demonstrated during this evening. His behaviour on the podium could be compared to that of a modern ballet danser, and he is aware of the effect his presence produces both as part of the orchestral output and extra-musically. As the symphony progressed, he intentionally increased his interaction with the musicians through hand and head gestures, treating the process as some kind of a ritual. Watching the concert from the choir of the Royal Festival Hall, with its public being also part of one’s visual field, added an additional dimension to it, with the universe expanding through Mahler’s music and including all the listeners in it. It was difficult for David Fray to compete with such energy accumulated by Salonen and his musicians during Mahler’s First Symphony, and, however articulate and intelligent his performance was, he did not have the level of personal charisma and presence that were required from the soloist in these circumstances. So, the first half was undoubtedly overshadowed by totally immersive performance which was the core of that remarkable evening and the finishing touch of Philharmonia’s Mahler series of the season.

The second programme (on 15th April 2018) was more experimental in intention than the first, and, along with the unusal work by Heinrich Biber ‘Battalia’ (already played by Salonen along his own pieces in Los-Angeles in February 2018) and Beethoven’s Symphony No 2, presented the European premiere of the modern composer Unsuk Chin’s work ‘Le Chant des Enfants des Étoiles’ co-commissioned by Philharmonia. With Beethoven’s works recently often featuring in a line-up in Salonen’s programmes as a conductor, one is inclined to think he somehow wants to personally contribute to this composer never being shadowed by the passage of time, as, according to his theory of ‘ever-stretching line’ it could sometimes happen. By making Beethoven the baseline of his programmes, he always tries to bring his works into contrast with other composers he is exploring, including his own contemporaries. But it was Biber’s ‘Battalia’ that drew more interest and attention from the audiences on the night. The musicians were standing (John Eliott Gardiner recently experimented with such positioning of his orchestra with making LSO play Shumann on foot and it worked perfectly) in an intimate circle around the conductor, sometimes stamping their feet on the ground and swiftly and playfully changing between various short movements of this piece that includes ‘the desolute society of all sorts’ where instruments play in five different keys.

Philharmonia Orchestra/Philharmonia Voices/Trinity Boys Choir, 15th April 2018

The culmination of the evening that had many representatives of the Philharmonia’s management in the audience was in fact the second part of the concert – the anticipated premiere of Unsuk Chin’s work. Incidentally, the previous day allowed to put Chin’s work in context as she and Salonen met to discuss their lives and work as composers on Saturday 14th April as part of Southbank Centre’s excellent weekend of talks called ‘Composers Collective’. Salonen mentioned such qualities of Chin’s compositions as the optimal amount of detail in her scores allowing freedom to musicians and never pressurizing them into following her precise instructions. Both composers also talked about the challenges of working with an orchestra and a conductor on a particular piece and explained how it comes into shape only gradually, through several performances during the rehearsals and adjustments made through brief notes given after the initial trial. The main effect of the afternoon was an understanding one gained that a modern piece of classical music is never standing separately from the context of its author’s life, interests, political and social engagements. Also, Chin and Salonen made it clear that communicating the condensed result of a certain strand of research undertaken by the composer is never straightforward and could be painful and challenging at many stages, always depending on a particular group of performers one worked with, but usually immensely rewarding in the end of the process.

This talk made the impression of the following evening more multi-dimensional. The amount of work and personal engagement in the piece on the part of the composer was evident, while the conductor approached the piece with seriousness, a slight touch of distance and careful consideration that was so different from his intensely personal Mahler 1. Unsuk Chin was fascinated by an interesting cosmological idea that all humans are stardust, as our bodies are made of the remnants of star explosions that happened billions of years ago. That allowed her to shape a new piece as a statement on our equality, despite our individual uniqueness, by making the listeners look up into the cosmos in search of their common past with the rest of humanity. In search of the textual material for such an idea, Unsuk made an ecclectic combination of 12 metaphysical poems by various authors, ranging from Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa and Mexican Octavo Paz, Scandinavians Edith Södergran and Eeva-Liisa Manner to Britih poets Henry Vaughan and William Blake. In a way, may be there was too much text in this work (or the poems could have been given to the audience beforehand), and with the transitions of sense and the logic of their combination not always clear on the first hearing, one sometimes had to perceive music separately from the texts on the screen above or to constantly shift the attention between the two.

Philharmonia Orchestra/Philharmonia Voices/Trinity Boys Choir, 15th April 2018

Despite the ecclectism that could have been the cause of mixed reviews it received, Unsuk Chin’s combined monumentality of intention with delicacy of realization. In her work passages where the composer silenced the orchestra and gave space to the choir (often women’s) only or to certain groups of instruments (celeste, harp, piano, sometime a powerful solo organ) metamorphosed into tutti passages gradually and very effectively, resembling cosmic waves spread over the continuum of time. The lighting designers during the evening increased the effect of condensed time passage by varying the lights from midnight to bright daylight. Many of the poems, it seemed, explored the visions a human being could have of the universe from different perspectives and angles. It is not coincidental then that the work had a very touching movement in its middle based on a ‘trompe d’oeil’ 17th century English poem ‘I saw a Peacock with a fiery tail’ where the angelic voices of Trinity Boys Choir summoned the surrealistic images that ‘could never be’ before our eyes. Salonen loosened his usual intense control of the musicians during the evening, sometimes almost observing the Philharmonia Voices and Trinity Boys Choir perform and elegantly shaping their performances to be in harmony with orchestral music rather than straightforwardly conducting them. This intentional light approach created a strange feeling of Unsuk Chin’s work indeed hanging somewhere between earth and cosmos, with many silences almost physically felt flowing over the Royal Festival Hall. It was an interesting experience to be immersed in, and may be new performances will acquaint us with this work more and will allow for its ecclecticism to grow into a newly formed cohesiveness. Coincidentally, it is interesting that Unsuk Chin’s piece directly analyses our place in cosmology of creation, while this article started with the consideration about each piece of music joining the timeline of human artistic development. The thought of there being a continuum where each of us belongs and is linked to overall humanity is reassuring, and, however lonely the composer's work may be, there is perhaps no better way to feel this unity than through hearing a new music piece together in a concert hall.

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