Calling Esa-Pekka Salonen a modern-day Leonard Bernstein may sound like a big puff of hot air, but it’s not entirely inaccurate either. Bernstein’s reputation as a steadfast conductor was easily rivaled by his reputation as a composer. From the author of Chichester Psalms and West Side Story came authoritative recordings of Shostakovich’s fifth and ninth symphonies and key lectures on Charles Ives and the infamous “The Unanswered Question”. Esa-Pekka Salonen is perfectly positioned to snatch the conductor/composer crown at this point in time. Not only did he pay his dues by waving the baton for works by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and John Adams, he also snagged the Grawemeyer Prize for his 2009 “Violin Concerto”. This concerto, written with violinist Leila Josefowicz in mind, is the feature presentation on Salonen: Out of Nowhere - Violin Concerto; Nyx. This is classical music that bleeds. It quivers with a human pulse that was left for dead after the romantics faded out. It’s an aesthetic that did not die, it just laid dormant as the technical students resurrected the old while the modernists deconstructed the new. If a slew of post-millennial pop bands have made it safe to “rock out” again, Esa-Pekka Salonen has made it safe to emote again, to plunge caverns and goose the spine with a gentle swipe of the scale. I’m not saying that Leonard Bernstein has met his match, I’m just asking you to tune in here, because this is great.
Salonen teams up with Josefowicz and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra to nail down the “Violin Concerto” in addition to the composition “Nyx”, named for the Greek goddess of night. A more perfect piece of cover art could not have been found. The album’s name refers to the pencil markings Salonen and Josefowicz made to the score while rehearsing (?), but the swirling black cloud on the front personifies dark presences, like the death bags in Stephen King’s Insomnia. To call the orchestra swells cinematic is an understatement. When the low triads crescendo into the mix at the 2:15 mark of the first movement, you know that some weighty critters are out and about. Sometimes they skitter to and fro and sometimes they drop in from the sky, landing in front of you and thereby scaring the living Wagner out of you.
The duties of the Finnish Radio Symphony Ochestra and Leila Josefowicz are more intertwined than most other violin concerti you may know. It’s not a matter of the orchestra introducing the themes followed by the soloist strutting her stuff between transitional parts. Rather, they are of the same blob. Josefowicz’s voice is always there, occasionally competing with the orchestra as she does at the end of the second movement. At other times, she has more of a leading role while the orchestra acts as that ever reliable mattress. These passages are so well masked that, even after many listens, you will never find yourself keeping score of who spent how much time in the limelight. The orchestra can be both tender and brutal on Out of Nowhere. Less noticeable are the violin lines Salonen has Josefwicz playing, arcing, and jumping over odd harmonic intervals like a hurdle race during an earthquake. Esa-Pekka Salonen gets bragging rights for this because he pulls it all together as if it weren’t meant for any other vehicle. It sounds like all of those pencil markings were worth it. “Violin Concerto” can stop traffic…or the earth’s axis.
“Nyx” is a different, though not altogether incongruous, matter. Since it is 19 minutes long, whereas the concerto sits at a comfortable 29 minutes or so, it builds at a different pace and places its priorities in different places. Orchestral tension still exists, but it’s protracted in the ever-so-slightest bit. Quiet passages glide by even more quietly, as during the clarinet soliloquy. The mood it batted from somber and dark to jumpy and slightly confused. Salonen himself says it best, really: “She is an extremely nebulous figure altogether; 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.” Isn’t that the truth.
Out of Nowhere - Violin Concerto; Nyx is an achievement of compositional vision and the feats accomplished when so many egos know just the right manner in which to collide. Now, let’s all stop dancing about architecture and leap onto the classical zeitgeist train before we miss it this time around.