For my money, the Chicago Symphony has kept its place at the top of the heap of American orchestras, as much by changing as by retaining its strongest elements. It’s the typical American orchestra, a kind of chameleon, very professional, kind of faceless, kind of a blank slate – until a strong-willed conductor puts his stamp on it and harnesses its virtuosity to his requirements. Americans are hybrids and at our best we reflect and refract the multitudes of cultural influences around us, and maybe focus them, clarify, de-mystify them.
These thoughts are provoked by the current concerts conducted by the eminent Finnish maestro, Esa-Pekka Salonen. In a rambling pre-concert “conversation,” Salonen told of his 16-year sojourn in remote California, and of how his relocation changed his Euro-centric attitudes, and his musical allegiances.
The journey he travels in his Piano Concerto clearly reflects his experience. Made-up Finnish folk music, mechanical birds, minimalism, Jazz, yes, even Gershwin – all figure in the fabric of this massively ambitious piece. There are wonderful stretches of orchestration, solos, ensembles and dramatic outbursts -- music that would test the limits of any orchestra.
But the CSO is up to most any challenge, and with the composer on the podium, they gave a rousing performance of this dense but not congested piece. Salonen is a masterful conductor, and he cleanly dissected his own music so that the pieces revealed their facets in sharp relief.
It was a work of many fragments, though. It didn’t cohere as a whole, and this was it’s downfall for me. It was exciting in places, even romantic in some other places, but basically an intellectual construction that reveals Salonen as the rebellious stepson of the Boulez school of modernism.
I have left the best part for last. Yefim Bronfman is a giant of the keyboard. The price of admission was more than paid off by seeing his almost superhuman pianism. Fighting the eternal battle of the keyboard versus the full orchestra, and winning it hands down, he negotiated mountains of notes with amazing dexterity and power.
If this concerto is flawed as a composition, it certainly does give two great virtuosos, the orchestra and the soloist, many opportunities to enhance their fame..