This afternoon at Davies Symphony Hall, Esa-Pekka Salonen gave the first of four concerts as guest conductor of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). A high point of his last visit in this capacity, which was in December of 2011, was the San Francisco premiere of his 2009 violin concerto, performed by soloist Leila Josefowicz, for whom the concert had been composed. This time he brought another composition to premiere, a single-movement tone poem for full orchestra entitled “Nyx.” Curiously, this was the “companion composition” on the recording of the concerto that he and Josefowicz made for Deutsche Grammophon, which earned a nomination in the Best Classical Instrumental Solo of the 2014 GRAMMY awards.
Nyx is one of the earliest of the deities in Greek mythology. Her name means “night.” She is a daughter of the earth mother Gaia and the mother of both Sleep and Death. Salonen is quoted in the program book as having said:
She is an extremely nebulous figure altogether; we have no sense of her character or personality.
The result is that “Nyx” is a decidedly dark composition; but it is also a highly energetic one, churning its way through a sequence of enigmatically thick textures, barely allowing time for either performer or listener to catch his/her breath. While Salonen may not have intended this explicitly, the music presents us with a “dark reading” of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which all of the supernatural characters view the mortals somewhere along the scale between indifference and hostility, in sharp contrast to the gentle beneficence suggested by the music of Felix Mendelssohn.
As a conductor Salonen was attentive to every single thread in his textures, whether the thread played out through a melodic line or wandered across the ensemble with chameleon-like changes in sonority in response to shifts in the sonorous context. One might not be able to identify themes; but there was a lexicon of motifs and gestures, each of which Salonen registered with enough clarity that it could be recognized as it progressed and returned. If a sense of the sinister prevailed, it was complemented by the certainty of destination communicated by Salonen’s rhetorical stances.
Such intense dramatism did much to prepare the attentive listener for the only work on the program following the intermission, the complete score that Igor Stravinsky composed for Michel Fokine’s one-act ballet “The Firebird.” This, too, is music that derives much of its expressiveness from texture. However, if Salonen invoked texture to capture Nyx’ nebulous nature, Stravinsky used it to define the sharply-demarcated (and prototypical, if you happen to subscribe to Vladimir Propp’s “morphological” theory of folk tales) character types. These include the supernatural qualities of the Firebird herself, the diabolical nature of Kashchei the Immortal and his ghastly retinue, and (most importantly of all) the multi-dimensionality of Prince Ivan, the hero figure faced with decisions to make at every turn in the plot.
It should therefore be no surprise that Salonen negotiated the journey of the ballet’s scenario through all of these character-types with the same confidence and clarity he brought to capturing the radically different qualities of Nyx. Once again, everything depended on how each instrument contributed to weaving the necessary textures; and the result was one of the most successful instances of “ballet without dancers” that one could imagine, giving high priority to both musical expressiveness and the underlying narrative in equal measure. To be fair, however, the absence of dancers allowed Salonen to take more than a few liberties with tempo that might have led even dancers as talented as Fokine and Tamara Karsavina to physical injury. Many of the passages felt rushed; and some of the phrases seemed “overacted” with ritardandos getting a bit too slow and lasting a bit too long. However, in the absence of any actual dancers, one could enjoy these simply as reinforced rhetorical gestures.
By way of contrast the program began with Maurice Ravel’s own orchestration of his four-hand piano suite Ma mère l’Oye (Mother Goose). This was originally composed for two young sisters; and it is not particularly demanding for well-intentioned amateur pianists (such as yours truly). Because simplicity was of the essence in the original version, Ravel went to great lengths to maintain it, even when adding a large number of different instruments to the mix. It is thus one of his most quiet compositions; and the subtle entrance of the violins about half-way through the opening movement was a stunning example of how well Salonen maintained quietude as the prevailing sense of the suite.
Taken as a whole, the program was a thoroughly satisfying encounter with the full ranges of both dynamics and expressiveness that distinguish both Salonen as a conductor and SFS as an orchestral ensemble.