Esa-Pekka Salonen is the guest conductor at Davies Symphony Hall this week, leading the San Francisco Symphony in Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, one of his own compositions – entitled Nyx – and the entire score for Stravinsky’s The Firebird.
Maestro Salonen – of whom the Boston Globe wrote that he displays “a kind of complete musicianship rarely encountered today” – is both a highly acclaimed composer, and a conductor of international renown. Amongst the works that he has composed are two concertos – a piano concerto for Yefim Bronfman and a violin concerto for Leila Josefowicz – which Salonen conducted with Ms Josefowicz and the San Francisco Symphony in December 2011.
Currently the Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen is also Conductor Laureate for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he was Music Director from 1992 until 2009. During this 2014-15 season, Maestro Salonen was appointed the first-ever Creative Chair at the Tonhalle Zurich Orchestra, which has commissioned from him a new work for orchestra and chorus. The Tonhalle will also perform a further nine of his compositions throughout the season. This season also sees Esa-Pekka Salonen touring extensively in Europe and Japan with the Phillharmonia Orchestra, and leading the thematic focus of the City of Light: Paris 1900-1950 festival. The New York Philharmonic has recently announced that Maestro Salonen will be The Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence for the 2015-16, 2016–17, and 2017-18 seasons.
Nyx, which has just received its UK premiere at London’s Barbican Centre with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, has its San Francisco Symphony premiere this week. It was composed in 2010 on a joint commission from Radio France, the Barbican Centre, the Atlanta Symphony, Carnegie Hall, and the Finnish Broadcasting Company – and according to the Chicago Classical Review – “one could hardly wish for a greater example of his creative gifts”. Maestro Salonen led the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in the world premiere of Nyx at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in February 2011.
Nyx takes its name from the one of the lesser-known – and rather shadowy – characters in Greek mythology, The Goddess of the Night. A figure of power and beauty, she has been depicted trailing stars, and painting the night sky. “She is an extremely nebulous figure altogether;” says Salonen, “we have no sense of her character or personality. It is this very quality that has long fascinated me and made me decide to name my new orchestral piece after her. I’m not trying to describe this mythical goddess in any precise way musically. However, the almost constant flickering and rapid changing of textures and moods as well as a certain elusive character of many musical gestures may well be related to the subject.”
Igor Stravinsky composed his ballet The Firebird between November 1909 and May 1910. Commissioned by Serge Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes, it was Stravinsky’s first international success, and the work that propelled him to international fame. The ballet premiered at the Opéra in Paris on June 25, 1910, with the involvement of some of the most illustrious artists of the day – designers Léon Bakst, Alexandre Benois and Alexander Golovine, and choreographer Michel Fokine, who also danced the role of Ivan Tsarevich. Tamara Karsavina danced the title role, Vera Fokina was the Thirteenth Princess, and Alexis Bulgakov was King Kashchei.
The Firebird is based on the Russian legend of a magical bird with glowing feathers – a powerful spirit for good upon the earth. Other characters from Russian folklore include the heroic Prince Ivan Tsarevich and the evil sorcerer Kashchei, and it was the folk origins of the story which inspired Stravinsky to include some Russian folk melodies in his score.
Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite – which opens this week’s program – was originally composed as a suite of ‘Five Children’s Pieces for Piano Four Hands’, between 1908 and 1910. It was inspired by a collection of children’s stories from 17th and 18th century French literature – mainly from Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma Mère l’Oye, (Mother Goose Tales), published in 1697. In 1911, Ravel made an orchestral transcription of the suite, and the same year also expanded his score into a ballet with orchestra. It’s the orchestral suite that we hear in this program – the five movements are entitled: Pavane of Sleeping Beauty, Tom Thumb, Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas, Conversations of Beauty and the Beast, and The Enchanted Garden.
Esa-Pekka Salonen’s season with the San Francisco Symphony opens today at Davies Symphony Hall, and runs until Sunday May 3. For performance times and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website:
San Francisco Symphony program notes
Esa-Pekka Salonen – website notes