Music Review: EXOTIC BIRDS: DEBUSSY, MESSIAEN AND SAARIAHO (Esa-Pekka Salonen and the SF Symphony)

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by Harvey Perr on October 19, 2021

in Music,Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Esa-Pekka Salonen walked slowly to the podium and when he arrived, he stood, frozen, for an extended period of time, as if he were calling upon a moment of silence and so, when the first bars of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à L’Après-midi d’un faune were heard, they seemed to emanate from the stillness of Salonen himself. The limpid movement of his hands and fingers seemed to magically transform a familiar piece of music into a work of pastoral simplicity, bringing new freshness and clarity to the score; one could close one’s eyes and see a pebble dancing slowly down a gentle mountain stream. Surely, this was as gorgeous a way to begin the second of Salonen’s October series of concerts at San Francisco Symphony’s Davies Hall as anyone could ask for.

Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the SF Symphony with pianist Jeremy Denk

The evening ended with Debussy as well, with a warm, full-bodied and ultimately powerful interpretation of his La Mer. While it is clear that film composers — working on sea epics from Moby Dick to Titanic to Romance on the High Seas — have been been influenced and inspired by Debussy’s meditation on the sea, Salonen transcended such influences by returning to the source. We did not need images of the sea to feel the rolling of the waves, the lapping against the shore.

Debussy provided a fine framework for the evening’s centerpieces, two complex and eccentric pieces of a more contemporary sensibility. Before the intermission, Olivier Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques was clearly a work of brilliance, building dramatically from a lighter tone than we expect from Messiaen to the darkness always lurking around its edges. The hero of the piece, and my personal hero of the entire event, was pianist Jeremy Denk, who went from being wittily playful to determined to intensely impassioned.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the SF Symphony featuring flutist Claire Chase

After intermission, Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho was given her due with her Aile du songe, a melange of bird songs, that proved to be the audience favorite of an extremely interesting program, and which one member of  the audience found to be a punishing bore. But there was nothing boring about flutist Claire Chase, surely the main source of the audience’s evident pleasure, who did not just play the difficult score with great dexterity but actually performed it with a dazzling theatricality. It wasn’t just the flute; it was her whole body. Salonen was in complete sympathy with Ms. Chase and there was some delight watching the two of them in such synchronicity.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the SF Symphony featuring flutist Claire Chase

Summing up, Debussy and Salonen seemed an absolutely perfect fit. Jeremy Denk would have made Messiaen proud. And I look forward to seeing Claire Chase under happier circumstances.

photos by Kristen Loken
photos of SF Symphony Day of the Dead Sculptures by Harvey Perr

Exotic Birds: Debussy, Messiaen & Saariaho
San Francisco Symphony | Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Avenue
ends on October 17, 2021
for tickets, call 415-864-6000 or visit SFS

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