Esa-Pekka Salonen & Philharmonia Orchestra

featuring Yu-Chien Benny Tseng (曾宇謙), violin

After a very hot day in Taipei and a train ride back down to the new(ish) opera house, which I haven’t visited for almost exactly four months, I find myself yet again in one of the coolest physical spaces in Taiwan, I think, a little café of sorts on the top floor of the opera house, small, with (expensive and only decent food but) great beer and a really cool view over some mediocre-looking part of the city. The moral of that story is the service is abominable and after over an hour, 15 minutes before the concert is to begin, I hadn’t gotten my food, but I did get my money back despite not having eaten dinner. Great beer, though.

Concert.

I’ve seen the Philharmonia and Maestro Salonen before, and they played Beethoven and Sibelius, just like they did tonight. That concert, I recall, was astounding, and somehow only just over two years ago. Time does fly, doesn’t it? I do recall it being one of the most exquisite concert experiences I’d had up to that point. Since then, though, we’ve had Chicago, Oslo, Berlin, Vienna, Munich, Bavarian Radio Symphony, and more. That’s not to say they outdid the Philharmonia, no, but I’ve been a bit spoilt.

Tonight’s program gave us first the Zur Namensfeier overture, op. 115, followed by the Sibelius violin concerto, if you can believe it, my very first time hearing this work live, and then Beethoven’s seventh symphony for the second half.

I’ve always kind of been enamored with Salonen’s charisma, his confidence and energy and intensity. It’s highly unlikely that he or anyone who (knows anyone who) knows him will be reading this, so I’ll say he seems like he could be a difficult person to work with, in the best way possible: demanding, exacting, focused, determined, driven, all of that.

As arrogant as he might seem in some of his interviews, there’s something so charming about his confidence, his intensity and the way he even speaks about music, and I’m reminded of this as he brings a swift, heavy fist down to begin the Beethoven overture, a quick piece, an icebreaker. Interesting choice, even among single-movement Beethoven openers, but I have thoughts on that later.

The hall this evening seems especially dry, a bit more muffled than usual. This is a small problem that has merely worried some performers and bothered others, but the splashes of color and vibrancy in one of Beethoven’s latest orchestral works shines through, reminding me of the kind of furious, unrelenting energy Salonen draws from his world-class ensemble like some kind of supervillian with an incredible talent for music and leadership.

The Beethoven overture, a work I’d never listened to before, is over, and I’m wondering how much excitement from the performers, felt by the audience, is just emanating from Salonen, like some kind of bottomless fountain of energy. It’s absolutely captivating to watch him conduct.

Shuffle, shuffle, shift, shift and we have space for a soloist on stage. Benny Tseng walks out and the Sibelius begins. It’s one of the earliest works I felt I fell in love with: the cold Finnish air, the landscape, a harshness, but a warmth, the deep blues and stark whites, a Romantic bloodline, but a fresh, 20th century, individual and exquisitely virtuosic work. I’ve also heard Benny Tseng play before, the Brahms concerto with the Munich Philharmonic. Overall, it was a much softer sound. I own Salonen’s recording of the Sibelius with Hilary Hahn and the L.A. Phil, on a disc where it’s accompanied by an outstanding (definitive?!) recording of the Schoenberg concerto. That Sibelius, though, as much as I love Hilary Hahn, I find a little flat, and tonight’s performance was by no means flat, but a little bit soft, Romantic, more intimate.

I think the orchestra slowed their roll on volume a bit to make sure Tseng didn’t get swallowed up in the dryness of the concert hall. I’m not sure, but that’s the only reason I can think of that the Sibelius suffered the most from a kind of muffled sound. He played beautifully, and the concerto overall outlined shades of the work I haven’t heard before. It wasn’t fiery and roaring and dark or bitter, but more melancholy, softer, more longing. It got me down a whole train of thought about how my hearing something differently perhaps says as much about me (or more) as it does the performance, but it has been some time since I’ve listened to the work. Salonen is clearly at home with the Finnish master, and Tseng played with great aplomb, even after he broke a string halfway through the second movement. He and concertmaster swapped violins, who then swapped with his assistant, who went to go restring Tseng’s violin, and was back in time for the finale. He played a sarabande from a Bach partita as an encore. The. Crowd. Goes. Wild.

Intermission. I see some of my Taipei music folks and say hello before we’re called back to our seats for Beethoven 7.

It’s one of the odd-numbered, and therefore fortunate symphonies of Beethoven, one of his most famous, and it’s almost impossible not to see why, even if the composer himself preferred the eighth.

I actually own very few recordings of Salonen’s, and don’t really think of him as a Beethoven interpreter necessarily. That’s just as well. I have more than enough Beethoven cycles already, but that being said, live performances seem to indicate that this is music that speaks to him. His ferocity on the podium is almost unmatched in almost anyone I’ve ever seen on the podium, but not at all dictatorial. He gives big grins, nods, and stirring gestures to his ensemble, and I think he’s one of the most elegant, satisfying conductors to watch.

And you will not convince me that it doesn’t have a huge impact on how the orchestra sounds. Their Beethoven was, again, white-hot, and even the slow introduction to the first movement, after its its Big Bangs, compresses down to some of the quietest and yet still electrifying moments of the entire work. The first movement is just a beautiful thing, the way it’s written and presented, and in their reading, I get wisps of the fire of the later ninth symphony, the last thing I heard there back in January.

The second movement was almost spiritual, barely audible in places, which would have been an absolutely transcendental experience had it not been for the small chorus of coughers here and there, but it was spiritual, heavy and solemn, but suddenly with a sense of release and beauty in its brighter moments, and the same went for the scherzo, with really exquisite playing from the winds in the trio section.

The last two movements of 7 are really a rip-roaring symphonic ride, perfectly within the tradition but just wild. The scherzo still manages to keep itself presentable enough. Salonen gives us a few notably longer pauses, but nothing like the opening of the final movement, almost long enough that people start to look around at each other, and even in silence, he has conjured up excitement and tension. That first gesture and the silence that followed were like the compression of a spring, the release of which set off a Rube Goldberg machine of fantastic louds and softs, intricate string work, beautiful bombast, roaring brass. Beecham was less favorable, speaking of “yaks jumping about” but it truly is one of the most exciting movements ever written for orchestra, containing everything, a perfect construction, and Salonen and the Philharmonia wrung every last drop of passion and perfection out of it for a literally breathtaking listening experience, almost dizzying even. They gave us Sibelius’ Valse Triste as an encore. Hearing Salonen say ‘Sibelius’ is weirdly exciting, but he also made sure to let us know (after a ‘shhh’ gesture) that it was “the last one” for the evening.

It’s concerts like this that help you realize how vitally enjoyable, how deeply impressive (as in awe-inspiring but also impression-making) a truly wonderful live performance can be. The seventh symphony has a certain kind of perfect unraveling anyway, that it just is, as if it has existed for all eternity and has always been perfect, but there’s the slightest sense of sadness in walking out of a performance like this because that is an occurrence that is never to be repeated, with that piece or perhaps any other. It is gone and it will never happen again.

Or at least that’s what I thought when I heard their Eroica, and now the seventh. We look forward to your return, Philharmonia. Please come back soon.

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