Josefowicz, Eschenbach and Salonen: NSO’s dynamic trio

Latest National Symphony Orchestra concert bookends a marvelous contemporary violin concerto - performed by Leila Josefowicz - between two great symphonies.

Leila Josefowicz, photographed by Chris Lee, 5/13/15. (Via Ms. Josefowicz' web site)

WASHINGTON, June 3, 2016 – Christoph Eschenbach returned to the podium Thursday evening to conduct a winning program whose focal point was the Violin Concerto of Finnish conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, performed by popular violinist Leila Josefowicz. Flanking the concerto on the program: Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 in D major (“London”) and Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120.

Ms. Josefowicz was initially scheduled to perform the world premiere of a brand new violin concerto by young American composer Sean Shepherd who apparently wasn’t quite able to complete this NSO commission in time.

Fortunately, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s newish Violin Concerto more than fit the bill for something new. Originally written for Ms. Josefowicz and premiered by both musicians with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009, it is a strikingly original work, loaded with modernist influence while adding highly individualistic touches and some of the most wicked challenges ever for the solo violinist.

In an odd bit of happenstance, when I was surfing through YouTube music videos a couple of weeks ago, I happened to come across a performance of Scriabin’s exhilarating, sublimely weird “Poem of Ecstasy.” Turned out it was an outstanding performance by Mr. Salonen and the London-based Philharmonia Orchestra, where he currently serves as principal conductor.

The writer Henry Miller provided an insightful comment upon hearing Scriabin’s composition:

“That Poème de l’extase? Put it on loud. His music sounds like I think – sometimes. Has that far-off cosmic itch. Divinely fouled up. All fire and air.”

Hold that thought for a moment.

In notes appearing in the NSO program, Mr. Salonen describes his concerto as “a kind of summary of my experiences as a musician and a human being at the watershed age of 50.”

The work contains four movements instead of the traditional three. “Mirage,” the opening movement, treats the violinist as a traveler moving into and out of life-context, retreating at times to moments of contemplative quiet.

Movements 2 and 3, labeled “Pulse I” and “Pulse II” resemble the more or less traditional slow movement and scherzo of a symphony. “Pulse I” is intimate and personal, while “Pulse II” depicts a kind of urban chaos (the L.A. Freeway), whose loud and often jazzy frenzies recall the earlier urban moods in Gershwin’s “American in Paris.”

The finale, “Adieu,” (presumably the composer’s hat tip to the L.A. Philharmonic among other considerations) caps the concerto off with sharp, contrasting and forward-looking momentum.

Mr. Salonen’s compositional style in this concerto is refreshingly unique. There are those clear allusions to Gershwin (in “Pulse II”) as well as the shimmering, extended tonality pioneered by Scriabin. Mr. Salonen deploys tuned gongs, marimba, vibraphone, harp and celesta at intervals—particularly in the concerto’s opening bars—to serve as an other-dimensional backdrop for the solo violin.

The result: Like Henry Miller’s impression of Scriabin, this concerto also possesses “that far-off cosmic itch. Divinely fouled up. All fire and air.” You can feel it.

“Fire and air” could equally describe the dazzling work of Ms. Josefowicz in this concerto. Granted, it written specifically for her. Yet this concerto is still fiendish stuff for any soloist, with material ranging from near string-snapping fortissimos+ to moments of near silence. In between are loads of complex runs and passagework, weird and unearthly intervals, slides, bends and quarter-tones.

Ms. Josefowicz is a violinist whose technical and interpretative skills stretch into the noumenal realm, something she amply demonstrated in her thrilling performance at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall Thursday. Not only was that performance showy and exciting. It was also daring, original and at times almost zen-like in its insightfulness.

We can’t neglect the superb efforts of Mr. Eschenbach and the NSO. Both orchestra and music director were passionately wrapped up in delivering a great experience to Thursday’s audience.

As for the rest of the program: The evening opened with a fine performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 104, arguably his greatest and one that seemed to pave the way for the Romanticism of Beethoven, particularly in innovations such as its short, dramatic Adagio introduction. It’s an idea that Beethoven would later adapt as would Schumann in his 4th Symphony.

Maestro Eschenbach and the orchestra gave the Haydn a crisp, sprightly reading, though the opening Adagio seemed just a bit too pompous. But that vanished quickly, and the rest of the performance was rollicking good fun.

Whereas most enduring symphonies consist of four movements related in key, tone and structure but not in meaning and motif, Schumann’s 4th deposits bits and pieces of earlier movements into later ones where they are further developed, transforming this symphony into one harmonious musical statement.

Another Schumann innovation—movements of the 4th are separated only by what we could best describe as “suspended pauses.” Instead of breaking cleanly after each movement is performed, the conductor counts a beat or two and moves right into the next.

Like Haydn’s 104th, the Schumann 4th commences with a slow introduction before launching into its main idea in a vigorous D minor. The first movement is followed by a brief “Romanze” distinguished by, in this reviewer’s opinion at least, one of the loveliest violin solo moments ever to unfold in a larger work—which in this case was performed exquisitely by the NSO’s concertmaster, Nurit Bar-Josef.

To provide contrast and a considerable change in mood, the third movement is an aggressive, minor-key scherzo, which is momentarily broken by a pair of trios, one of them drawing directly on the second movement’s violin solo melody.

One final “suspended pause” brings us to an ominous bridge passage that builds to a climax, leading directly into the exuberant finale. Here, once again, earlier elements of the symphony are reprised, building to a climax and a helter-skelter coda that concludes in a dramatic and triumphant close.

Again, great work here under Mr. Eschenbach’s baton, with the orchestra seeming to catch every nuance present in Schumann’s final score. Brass work was clean and tight throughout, and we’ve already noted Ms. Bar-Josef’s lovely solo excursion in the “Romanze.”

Rating: ***1/2 (Three and one-half out of four stars)


This series concert repeats Friday and Saturday evenings at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Curtain: 8 p.m.

NSO ticket prices generally range from $15-89. For tickets and information, visit the NSO’s page on the Kennedy Center website, or call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or Toll-Free: (800) 444-1324.

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