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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

ESA-PEKKA SALONEN

BORN: June 30, 1958. Helsinki, Finland. Currently living in Los Angeles, CA and London, England

COMPOSED: 2008–09. The Violin Concerto was written for Leila Josefowicz

WORLD PREMIERE: April 9, 2009. Leila Josefowicz was soloist and Salonen conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST

AND ONLY—December 2011. Josefowicz was soloist and Salonen conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes, piccolo and alto flute, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clari- net and contrabass clarinet, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, drum set, glockenspiel, tuned gongs, log drum, marimba, tom-toms, vibraphone, tam-tam), harp, celesta, and strings

DURATION: About 30 mins

THE BACKSTORY Back in the days when a concerto’s soloist was also the conductor, it was no problem if the first movement began with the orchestra plowing through a lengthy procession of melodic materials, after which the soloist would enter, reiterate those materials, and set them off on the journey of classical sonata form (where themes are stated, developed, at length, and brought back at a movement’s conclusion). Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto both recognizes and subverts convention by obliging the orchestra to sit out the opening. The violin starts alone, “as if the music had been going on for some time already” as Salonen explains in his program note.

Such an opening is far from traditional, but thinking outside the box has long been a Salonen trademark. In his liner notes to the Deutsche Grammophon album Wing on Wing, he states that “Musical expression is bodily expression, there is no abstract cerebral expression in my opinion. It all comes out of the body.” That almost amounts to a declaration of independence from a composer whose formative years were dominated by the cerebral desiccation of postwar serialism, a rigid from-the-neck-up ideology that in its extreme manifestations denied the very humanity of music and erected a thick wall between composers and audiences. “I decided to cover as wide a range of expression as I could imagine over the four movements of the concerto: from the virtuosic and flashy to the aggressive and brutal, from the meditative and static to the nostalgic and autumnal,” says Esa-Pekka Salonen of his Violin Concerto. THE MUSIC Tradition is alive and well in the clearly demarked structure of the Violin Concerto’s first movement, Mirage. Salonen follows the lead of his predecessors by laying out a series of passages that focus sometimes on the soloist, sometimes on the orchestra, and other times on the interplay of the two. The solo-violin opening acts rather like an introductory cadenza (an improvisatory solo passage), its scurrying repeated notes reminiscent of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. Shortly the violin is joined by vibraphone and harp, creating a silvery tapestry that gives no hint of the mahogany orchestral sonorities to come. Those darker hues duly arrive in the first tutti—that is, the passage in the full orchestra that traditionally opened a concerto movement but has here been delayed by the solo- violin introduction. Broad and sustained strokes in the cellos and basses are punctuated by pulsating figures in the winds. At about the two-and-a-half minute mark the violin re-enters with material similar to the opening. All in all the passage resembles the “second exposition” of a classical concerto movement, in which the main materials of the movement are played by soloist and orchestra after having been first stated by the orchestra alone. Here, however, it is the violinist who originally stated those materials, and it is the violinist who now restates them. Etched gestures in the violin culminate in a series of vertiginous high notes that lead into the second orchestral tutti, as before characterized by dark hues and sustained washes of harmony. Soon enough the violin re-enters, now in a shower of breathtaking double stops (playing two strings simultaneously) flashing by at breakneck speed. Around the five-and-a-half minute mark the violin begins a slowdown via long string slides, still in double stops, bringing a brief pause to the overall headlong rush. But at six minutes the quickstep pace returns, now accelerated to a concluding flat-out dash that Salonen describes as “an embellished melodic line that leads into some impossibly fast music.” Soloist and orchestra together shoot skyward as though propelled by a rocket launcher; the solo violin hovers breathlessly above on sustained string harmonics in what is for all practical intents and purposes a cadenza, gradually settling back to sea level and the second movement, titled Pulse I. The Salonen Violin Concerto honors the past in offering a recognizably lyrical slow movement, but one based less on vocal lines and more on washes of orchestral color and melodic fragments. The movement begins with the orchestra joining the soloist with hushed flurries in the strings and winds while the timpani provides a soft but persistent beat. “All is quiet, static. I imagined a room, silent: all you can hear is the heartbeat of the person next from the meditative and static to the nostalgic and autumnal,” says Esa-Pekka Salonen of his Violin Concerto.

THE MUSIC Tradition is alive and well in the clearly demarked structure of the Violin Concerto’s first movement, Mirage. Salonen follows the lead of his predecessors by laying out a series of passages that focus sometimes on the soloist, sometimes on the orchestra, and other times on the interplay of the two. The solo-violin opening acts rather like an introductory cadenza (an improvisatory solo passage), its scurrying repeated notes reminiscent of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. Shortly the violin is joined by vibraphone and harp, creating a silvery tapestry that gives no hint of the mahogany orchestral sonorities to come. 

Those darker hues duly arrive in the first tutti—that is, the passage in the full orchestra that traditionally opened a concerto movement but has here been delayed by the solo- violin introduction. Broad and sustained strokes in the cellos and basses are punctuated by pulsating figures in the winds. At about the two-and-a-half minute mark the violin re-enters with material similar to the opening. All in all the passage resembles the “second exposition” of a classical concerto movement, in which the main materials of the movement are played by soloist and orchestra after having been first stated by the orchestra alone. Here, however, it is the violinist who originally stated those materials, and it is the violinist who now restates them.

Etched gestures in the violin culminate in a series of vertiginous high notes that lead into the second orchestral tutti, as before characterized by dark hues and sustained washes of harmony. Soon enough the violin re-enters, now in a shower of breathtaking double stops (playing two strings simultaneously) flashing by at breakneck speed. Around the five-and-a-half minute mark the violin begins a slowdown via long string slides, still in double stops, bringing a brief pause to the overall headlong rush. But at six minutes the quickstep pace returns, now accelerated to a concluding flat-out dash that Salonen describes as “an embellished melodic line that leads into some impossibly fast music.” Soloist and orchestra together shoot skyward as though propelled by a rocket launcher; the solo violin hovers breathlessly above on sustained string harmonics in what is for all practical intents and purposes a cadenza, gradually settling back to sea level and the second movement, titled Pulse I.

The Salonen Violin Concerto honors the past in offering a recognizably lyrical slow movement, but one based less on vocal lines and more on washes of orchestral color and melodic fragments. The movement begins with the orchestra joining the soloist with hushed flurries in the strings and winds while the timpani provides a soft but persistent beat. “All is quiet, static. I imagined a room, silent: all you can hear is the heartbeat of the person next to you in bed, sound asleep” says Salonen. The violin plays mostly in double stops, creating harmony on a normally single-line instrument, while exploiting the extremes of the instrument’s range; delicate high harmonics lead to gentle staircase descents down to the violin’s lowest tones, all supported by that softly insistent timpani beat.

Presently the orchestra drops out and the movement belongs to the solo violin, in a cadenza similar to that which opened the movement. Salonen: “You cannot sleep, but there is no angst, just some gentle, diffuse thoughts on your mind.” But the orchestra returns, gently, with a lightening of the texture highlighted by flutes that herald the coming dawn.

But this is no drowsy spring morn. Instead, we are plunged into the frenetic bling of a twenty-first-century city as Pulse II erupts. The pounding rhythms of contemporary life are everywhere—a touch of hip- hop here, a soupçon of jazz there. Even a dance band’s drum set joins the percussion array. If the second movement “pulses” with long, sustained notes, this unbuttoned dance movement pulses with lightspeed repeated notes. “Something very Californian in all this,” remarks Salonen. But this is no California of beaches and forests and mountains and deserts and breathtaking coastal vistas. This is the white-hot California of the inner city, the California of clubs and raves and street life and freeways and über-wealth and violence.

The Salonen Violin Concerto joins that select group of compositions with a finale nearly as long as the rest of the work combined. The concerto’s long and luxuriant Adieu is, according to Salonen, “not a specific farewell to anything in particular. It is more related to the very basic process of nature, of something coming to an end and something new being born out of the old.” In a way the movement acts to drain the accumulated tension that peaked with the wildness of Pulse II. Now all that intake is balanced by a sustained release that evokes past composers while yet remaining distinctly a single creative voice.

The finale opens with solo violin, as did the first movement, but the former nervous energy is replaced with poised melodic lines and relaxed rhythm. Various instruments discreetly join the soloist for duets that tend to float upwards in intertwined scales. Soon enough a hint of turbulence arrives with ominous rumbles in the timpani, heralding the first full orchestral passage, a distinctly menacing affair that keeps any actual violence firmly at bay. The darkness dissolves as the violin re-enters over an aviary’s worth of orchestral trills; as the soloist is partnered first by viola, then oboe, the music gradually unfolds into splendor, shot through with golden beams of light from a hovering piccolo.

The drama intensifies for the second full orchestral section, as the light dims while the brass section flexes its considerable muscle. A monolithic block of sound is interrupted by a tam-tam, the signal for what we might call the violin cadenza—provided we can expand the definition of cadenza to include orchestral accompaniment. Cadenza or not, this is no last-chance-for-glory strut in the spotlight. There will be no more grand gestures, no last vaulting surge to a thrilling conclusion. A hush settles over soloist and orchestra alike; the shimmer returns as the music floats about in its unruffled dreamworld. An achingly lovely quasi- major triad emerges. The music stops.

Esa-Pekka Salonen: “When I had written the very last chord of the piece I felt confused: why does the last chord—and only that—sound completely different from all other harmony of the piece? As if it belonged to a different composition. Now I believe I have the answer. That chord is a beginning of something new.”—SCOTT FOGLESONG