Salonen Returns to L.A. for an All-Sibelius Program

By Truman C. Wang

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Photo: L.A. Times

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Photo: L.A. Times

The return of L.A. Phil’s former Music Director (1992-2009, now Conductor Laureate) Esa-Pekka Salonen is always a momentous affair.  Especially significant was Thursday’s all-Sibelius program, played by the finest Sibelius orchestra this side of the Atlantic.  L.A. may be a long way from Finland, but the orchestra – under Salonen’s leadership – captured the cragginess and grandeur of the Sibelius sound like no other outside of Finland. 

The concert started off with the nationalistic Finnish tone poem Finlandia, a perennial favorite among Hi-Fi enthusiasts, here sounding spectacular in its dynamism and bold colors. 

The opening pages of the Symphony No. 6 always sound to me like we’re looking at an illuminated manuscript – a mysterious Dorian polyphony that radiates light from within.   Maestro Salonen and his L.A. Phil strings achieved that most effectively, only bringing us back to reality once the woodwind and bass entered into the mix.  A feeling of light and airiness was everywhere evident throughout this gloomy symphony, even in the darkest moments of the final pages. 

The mood brightened up considerably with the six Humoresques, Op.89, in which concertmaster Martin Chalifour played the solo in the most congenial, cheerful manner, capturing the lyrical, dancing soul of the violin. 

Martin Chaulifour, Photo: LA Phil

Martin Chaulifour, Photo: LA Phil

These unjustly neglected pieces may possibly have been afterthoughts of a second violin concerto that he had been planning in 1915, one of whose themes found its way into the opening paragraphs of the Sixth Symphony. Sibelius himself wrote that these pieces convey something of ''the anguish of existence, fitfully lit up by the sun'', and there are few pieces where the magic of the white nights of the Scandinavian summer is more keenly evoked.

In Sibelius’ final and great Symphony No. 7, maestro Salonen conveyed a sense of a constantly evolving sound from the bass-lines like a slow-moving Nordic glacier.  The majestic soundscape moved through impressive peaks and valleys with great beauty and awe-inspiring scale.   

For the next two months, Mr. Salonen will be in L.A. to curate the Reykjavík Festival, featuring new works and ensembles from Iceland’s ‘music explosion’.   Performances will take place at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and venues around L.A.  For tickets, call 213-355-5237 or go to

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.