The Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen is finishing up his residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with a program that has been carefully devised to bowl the Symphony Center audience over by turning up the volume on the orchestra to near ear-splitting levels. The current program consists of Czech and Post-Romantic music, pieces which take orchestral music to levels intended to put the big into “big band”.
Despite the unmistakable imprint of Salonen’s sometimes abrasive style, the real headliner had to be Christian Tetzlaff, one of the most sought-after violinists for the last several years. His performance of Dvorak’s Violin Concerto, a piece premiered in the U.S. by the CSO in 1894. Tetzlaff’s performance was as compelling as any soloist who has performed with the CSO this year, never milking the piece for excess drama but producing a full sound that seemed near-ideal. After this concert, I would never describe Salonen’s conducting as “light”, but he definitely kept the spotlight on Tetzlaff by keeping the tempos fairly moderate and unobtrusive, a fine balance between orchestra and soloist.
Salonen then introduced his own composition Nyx to Chicago at the beginning of the symphonic portion of the concert. Composed in 2011, Nyx is a piece written by the conductor (for whom composition is more of a side light) inspired by the mysterious Greek goddess who figures largely in their creation myth. Salonen insists that the composition is not intended to evoke Nyx per se, and the piece seems to suggest the major orchestral compositions of the early twentieth century more than anything else. Salonen’s emphasis on the brass, both in the composition and in his conducting, allows the CSO brass to shine, but it is possible to shine too brightly. To put it plainly, the sheer loudness of Nyxis both awe-inspiring and an overload on one’s senses. The strings, despite the fact that they’re used extensively, only seem to infer themselves when the fortissimo horns are blasting away. The piece contains an extended concertino solo for clarinet, played admirably by CSO clarinetist John Yeh, though he was, like all his cohorts, overshadowed by the brass (in fairness, this tends to happen with the CSO.)
Salonen’s approach to his own piece made more sense in the larger context of the concert when it was joined to the final piece of the evening, Janacek’s Sinfonietta, which began with a clarion call by 10 supplementary trumpets, including 8 stationed in the aisles of the seating area behind the orchestra stage. The Sinfonietta is a bit more nuanced than Nyx, but it draws from the same musical influences that Salonen’s piece did, though this is more understandable because Janacek’s piece was contemporary. The strings shone through here in their more prominent passages, and the pairing of the two pieces was a very clever and satisfactory linking of a contemporary composition with an older standard. Salonen’s interpretations strove for, and produced, a display of raw power, an approach bound to awe and seem at times excessive.