Sunday, March 24, 2024

Sibelius with Esa Pekka Salonen, Lisa Batiashvili and SF Symphony Orchestra in Costa Mesa

 Wednesday March 20th, 2024. 

For years I had been wanting to hear Lisa Batiashvili perform live and thought I'd really have to shape up and actually fly east either to New York or all the way to Europe as she really doesn't come west across the Atlantic Ocean much. So, when the Orange County Philharmonic Society presented an all Sibelius program featuring Finlandia, the violin concerto, and the 1st symphony with Esa Pekka Salonen conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and featuring Lisa Batiashvili as the violin soloist, I literally bounced off all the walls in my apartment, shouting for joy. Some dreams do come true if you manage to live long enough! 

Renee & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.

It was also my first time attending a performance at the beautiful Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. It is an impressive performance arts complex! All the staff and volunteers manning the events (there are other things going on at the many venues in the same complex) were wonderfully efficient and pleasantly helpful. The auditorium itself is very modern and comfortable. There are 1704 seats in the main auditorium and 250 choral seats behind the stage, and lots of reverberation-friendly panels. Indeed, the acoustical adjustability is one of the hall's many selling points.

For this symphonic concert, tho, I think perhaps not enough rehearsal time was available to fine tune the adjustable acoustics as the hall configuration during the concert really favored the last row of the orchestra; the brass section (trumpets, trombones, and tubas) and the strings double basses. Whenever those guys got to fortissimo or louder, they obliterated all the other instruments except for the timpani and the cymbal... The entire string section that sounded lovely and plenty loud enough at lower dynamic markings became completely covered by the brass whenever the music ramped up. Curiously, the French horns in the next to last row didn't enjoy the same acoustical boost as the last row brass did. 

The extra acoustic boost on the low brass, tho, made for a rather awesome dynamic contrasts in the first number of the evening, the original (no-chorus) version of Sibelius' patriotic 'Finlandia'. Esa Pekka Salonen's crisp and tumultuous reading of the piece benefited from the extra brass ring/squillo/boost that made vivid the sinister oppression that the strings and the wind were mustered against. It is a compelling sonic history of Finnish independence that translates across many barriers. The triumphant finish to the piece was positively thunderous. My ears rang both literally and figuratively for all the non-musical minutes it took for Maestro Salonen to acknowledge the applause, leave the stage and come back with Lisa Batiashvili in tow for the marquee piece of the show - Sibelius' E minor Violin Concerto. 

There are many recordings of Lisa Batiashvili performing the Sibelius Violin Concerto, of course. Many are available on Youtube. She's been playing this thing since she was a teenager (having placed 2nd at the Sibelius Violin Competition in 1995... as a 16 yrs old). Her earlier clips of the piece were played on either the Engleman or the Joachim Stradivarius, then somewhere between 2010 and 2014 she switched to the current Guaneri del Jesu. I always thought it pretty remarkable being able to watch her play the Sibelius concerto with a Strad and with a Guaneri. I think the Guaneri really suits her temperament better (and she seems obviously more comfortable playing it). 

It was pretty amazing how well she projected even when the last row of the brass were really blaring... especially considering that the Guaneri she's playing doesn't have the brighter sound of the previous Strads. I tend to prefer a more expansive orchestral reading of Daniel Barenboim or Paavo Järvi - giving more breathing room, so to speak - than the more brisk and no nonsense pacing favored by the actual Finnish conductors like Oramo or on this night, Salonen. But that's a superfluous squabble when the soloist has no trouble with the pace (on a long and taxing number like this concerto, that's no small feat) and still manages to commiserate and engage with the orchestra like a bunch of fellow Scandinavians... never mind that she is from Georgia (the country rather than the American state) and the orchestra San Francisco. Maestro Salonen is a Finn, of course, tho brooding is not quite his thing and so there wasn't any orchestral sigh at the end of the 2nd movement... and no dancy exuberance for the 3rd movement either. It was a contrasts-driven reading of the concerto that was quite refreshingly 'to the point', much to the delight of both me (who must have listened to at least 15 different performances of the Sibelius Concerto by now) and my friend & concert buddy Suzanne, who was hearing the piece for the first time.  

We, and just about everyone else in the sadly not nearly full auditorium applauded as hard as we could and were delighted that Batiashvili came back out to give an lovely encore of the Finnish traditional 'Evening Song' as arranged for a violin and orchestra by Jarkko Riihimäki. Here's a clip of the piece, from a different performance.

After the intermission Maestro Salonen led the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra on a spirited Sibelius' First Symphony. It's a piece I'm not all that familiar with (had only heard bits of it but not the whole thing). It's almost a folklore come to life in music, with lovely solos for the harpist to shine. Aside from a few extra loud places where the brass covered her and every other instruments, shine she did. As is often the case with Sibelius, of course, the music builds and builds, and ended with both my ears all tingly and all quite stressed out (in mostly good ways). 

So, it was a really nice surprise when Maestro Salonen gently signaled for us to hush during his 2nd curtain call, and asked, "Would you like to hear something quiet?" As nobody in the world would say no to that, he then proceeded to lead the SFSO on not one but two delightful orchestral encores! 

The first was Sibelius' Valse Triste. I'm not sure what the second one was.... perhaps a number from his Karelia Suite? Anyhow, I was in hogs heaven... All these years of attending symphonic performances I hadn't ever scored an orchestral encore (let alone two in one night) before. What a treat it was! 

Of course, I had since learned that Maestro Salonen had announced just a few days before the concert that 2024 would be his last year as music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. It's a rather sad news, but I hope that wherever he goes next he'll still come to Southern California for concerts sometimes. 

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