Ear Supply: Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Hello Goodbye

Jennifer Koh
Seattle Weekly

By Gavin Borchert 

Of the two dozen or so pieces violinist Jennifer Koh has premiered, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 2009 Violin Concerto is not one. Her performances with the Seattle Symphony this weekend will be her first of the work. But the two have collaborated often as soloist and conductor, with Salonen on the podium of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Perhaps surprisingly, since conducting consists essentially of telling other musicians what to do, when it comes to his own composition he’s pretty hands-off, Koh reports. “He knows me, knows my playing; he trusts me as a performer,” she says. “He likes performers taking his pieces and doing something different with them . . . he wants people to feel free to interpret it the way they feel it.”

So how does Koh interpret this concerto? “I think it had to with his leaving L.A.,” she says. Both a daunting showpiece and an emotionally compelling testimonial, the concerto was premiered during Salonen’s final week as the Philharmonic’s music director. In the first movement, “Mirage,” the perpetual-motion violin solo rides between and over broadly heaving waves rising from the depths of the orchestra, vibraphone and high winds adding glints of light. The two central movements, “Pulse 1” and “Pulse 2,” both use relentless percussion underpinning to very different effect: The first is moody and cinematic, as mysterious colors waft in and out over an ominous timpani throb, while the second is a manic urban dance, like something from West Side Story reset in a future dystopia. The finale is racked with angst, both from the soloist and from the orchestra in full cry; that Salonen titled it “Adieu” is bound to raise questions, especially since he refers in program notes to the concerto’s “strong, internal private narrative.” The questioning, actually, seems to come from the searching, climbing violin line in the work’s final two minutes, while the orchestra at last calms down. Resignedly? Sleepily? Grievingly? Your call.