A Conductor’s Concerto, Influenced and Inspired

02.03.07
Yefim Bronfman
The New York Times

Composers who are also active conductors gain direct experience with a wide array of music, especially if the conductor is as adventurous as Esa-Pekka Salonen, the dynamic music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Mr. Salonen has learned from the inside the techniques and tricks of composers he admires,

from giants like Ligeti to colleagues like John Adams. But this seeming advantage has a downside. A conductor's ear can become like a suction cup. How do you find your own voice when you are constantly speaking through the voices of other composers?

In some of Mr. Salonen's earlier compositions, he seemed to be struggling to define his own language and sound. No longer. On Thursday night with the New York Philharmonic, Mr. Salonen conducted the premiere of his Piano Concerto, dedicated to the evening's soloist, Yefim Bronfman. From its orchestral introduction (a halting yet urgent march with fidgety dotted-rhythm string figurations and lumbering syncopated riffs in the timpani and drums) to its incandescent conclusion (with the tentative introductory music turned into a din of pungently harmonic triumph), this 30-minute concerto in three movements pulls you along its inexorable path.

What especially made the work arresting to me was the giddy pleasure of hearing Mr. Salonen evoking, appropriating and downright stealing music he knows and loves, yet filtering it through his own intellect to produce something excitingly original. It's as if Mr. Salonen were declaring that by virtue of his hard work and discipline, the great heritage of music is his heritage, too; that he owns it and can do whatever he wants with it. And in this piece he did.

For example, midway through the first movement there is an ecstatic episode when the piano erupts with skittish riffs and pungent cluster chords, played against shimmering orchestral sonorities. Surely Messiaen inspired this moment. Yet while evoking Messiaen, Mr. Salonen has fun with him, mixing hints of Messiaen-like harmonies into overtly jazzy rhythms and riffs. Throughout his life, Messiaen, who did not like jazz, bristled when told that his music seemed jazzy.

Mr. Salonen describes the two long episodes of the second movement, each a burst with flighty runs and languid melodic ruminations, as "Synthetic Folk Music With Artificial Birds," an apt description admirable in its specificity. The third movement is, more or less, a bracing rondo. Yet throughout this frenetic movement the elusive music somehow seems to evolve, over all, in long, arching and spacious spans. This is probably because the harmonic rhythm (that is, the pace at which the harmonies that ground the music change) is often daringly slow.