Arts & Events

New: With Philharmonia Orchestra Salonen Goes Big and Loud

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday March 18, 2019 - 05:02:00 PM

A program of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony may offer only a small and unrepresentative sample, but it seems from Saturday night’s concert, March 16, at Zellerbach Hall that San Francisco Symphony audiences may be in for some very loud music when Esa-Pekka Salonen assumes the Music Director post in 2020. Salonen is currently in town with his Philharmonia Orchestra of London, which he has headed as Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor since 2008. For Saturday’s concert, Salonen had huge forces at his disposal. The program notes listed 110 musicians, and the stage was filled to capacity with musicians extending the full width of the stage.  

Opening the concert was the 26 year-old Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, a work that is a climax of Post-Romanticism, written well before Schoenberg developed his twelve tone approach. This early work of Schoenberg’s was originally written for string sextet, and the composer later arranged it for string orchestra. Rarely, however, is Verklärte Nacht performed with such a massive orchestra as it was given here under Esa-Pekka Salonen. Some things get lost in such a performance. For example, there are two important pizzicato passages in the viola section that, in either the sextet version or with a small chamber orchestra, stand out boldly. Here they were smothered and became barely audible. This is a pity. On the other hand, I found the Philharmonia’s cello section offering a sumptuous tone throughout. Principal violist Yukiko Ogura had a brief but lovely solo, and Concertmaster Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay excelled in bright, shimmering passages, as did Assistant Concertmaster Sarah Oates. All told, this was not Verklärte Nacht the way I like to hear it; but if you want big and loud, this was your meat and potatoes, 

After intermission the Philharmonia took on Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in E Major. Bruckner offers plenty of opportunity for music that is big and loud. However, Bruckner composes in blocs that alternate in dynamics. The 7th Symphony opens quietly, with low rumbles in the cellos and a solo horn; but it soon builds to repeated ear-splitting climaxes. Even in this symphony’s second movement, an Adagio that offers some of the most lyrical music Bruckner ever penned, there are also several ear-splitting brass climaxes played fortissimo. The Adagio was conceived by Bruckner as a loving tribute to Richard Wagner, who died before Bruckner completed this Adagio. It has a number of Wagnerian features, including the use of “Wagner tubas,” an invention of Wagner’s that is a cross between the horn and the euphonium. The Adagio also offers a lovely solo for flute, here ably performed by Samuel Coles.  

The third movement is a Scherzo, a dramatic whirlwind of music featuring trumpet and clarinet above ostinato passages in the strings. The Finale features a pizzicato bass line while the strings offer a lyrical hymn-like melody. However, the opening theme from this symphony’s first movement now returns to lead up to yet another ear-splitting climax, which, because this is Bruckner, somehow works and seems entirely appropriate. Throughout this 7th Symphony of Bruckner, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted with enormous energy. He leaped about the podium, waved his left arm vigorously, thrust with his right arm and pointed his baton directly at individual musicians, and when he wanted the orchestra to stop dead, he gave a dramatic downward thrust with his right arm. He put on quite a show. I guess it goes with music that is big and loud. One can’t help wondering, however, what Salonen will do with music that is not big and loud.