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Salonen thrills with grand slam of a concerto

Yefim Bronfman
Chicago Tribune

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which hasn't had a composer/conductor as music director since Jean Martinon, could make beautiful music with Esa-Pekka Salonen. Too bad he's not interested in the job. The globe-trotting Finnish dervish prefers creating his own music to conducting other people's insofar as his U.S. commitments go. That, he says, is how he wants to spend much of his time once he departs the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009.

All of which made the "Salonen sightings" this week at the CSO something subscribers may need to hang onto for some time.

The concerts on Wednesday and Thursday had as their centerpiece the biggest new Salonen piece Chicago has heard to date-his 2007 Piano Concerto, played by Yefim Bronfman, the close friend and colleague for whom it was written.

Cast in three parts lasting about 33 minutes, the concerto is the kind of postmodernist contraption few besides John Adams compose these days: unabashedly grand in scale and rhetoric, an obstacle course for virtuoso pianist and orchestra, Romantic in gesture if up-to-the-minute in harmonic design.

Salonen sets the soloist and orchestra in a constantly shifting relationship with, he says, the piano zooming in and out of the surrounding textures. The overarching impression is a thrill ride of almost unremitting physical energy. Yet the exhilaration factor has less to do with sheer propulsion than the accumulation and release of multilayered detail. I found it a knockout.

The solo part is astonishingly difficult, but Bronfman finessed the ferocious bravura with leonine dexterity, percussive force and coloristic subtlety. Salonen the conductor served Salonen the composer brilliantly.

If Thursday's performance was tighter and more confident than the previous night's, the audiences awarded the performers and composer extended ovations at both concerts. Rarely have I heard so enthusiastic a response to a new piece here.

Salonen opened with Luciano Berio's ingenious arrangement of a Luigi Boccherini quintet, "Rirata Notturna di Madrid," wherein Berio superimposes four versions of the Baroque composer's little night music to riotously colorful effect.

He ended with a clear, incisive if idiosyncratic account of the Beethoven Symphony No. 7, marred by the curious decision to have the second horn player play the two-note figures in the Presto movement as a distorted parody of the sound of a natural, or valveless, horn. Was this what Beethoven really wanted? Salonen apparently believes so, but I wasn't convinced.