If critics ruled the world — hope springs eternal — Esa-Pekka Salonen might be the New York Philharmonic’s music director right now. A conductor and composer, incisive and dryly funny, with a broad and quirky repertory, he was favored by some of us during the process that resulted in the selection of Jaap van Zweden in 2016.
Who knows how long Salonen would have stayed in the job, but van Zweden is leaving after next season, just a few years into his tenure. And on Tuesday, the Philharmonic announced that Gustavo Dudamel, the superstar music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, would replace him.
Dudamel, though, is conducting on the West Coast this week. He’s coming to New York for a news conference on Feb. 20, then doesn’t lead his new orchestra until May. Because of classical music’s glacial planning cycles, it won’t be until 2026 that he officially takes up the podium.
So, by coincidence, it was Salonen — Dudamel’s predecessor in Los Angeles and now the music director of the San Francisco Symphony — who led the Philharmonic’s first concert since the appointment, on Wednesday at David Geffen Hall. (One for the annals of bad timing: Just last week, the two men and Rafael Payare of the San Diego Symphony unveiled, with much hoopla, the California Festival, a coming joint venture.)
If any performance could have captured the excitement the Philharmonic is feeling — look at the photo published in The New York Times of Judith LeClair, the principal bassoon, erupting when she learned the Dudamel news — it was the joyful rendition of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony that closed Wednesday’s program.
Under Salonen, the first movement steadily gained tension and excitement from the alternation — and sometimes the superimposition — of rough, abrupt accents and silkily long legato lines. He was unafraid of dramatic elongations of transitional passages: the short prelude to the Vivace section, the exchange of quietly wistful material through the winds later on.
The Allegretto second movement, which under some batons can feel like an adagio dirge, was here remarkably flexible, neither too slow nor too heavy. The third movement began with a blitheness that gave the weighty trio section true grandeur by contrast. A whooshing start to the finale was soon, once again, grounded in those legato lines, headlong but fundamentally guided.
It was interesting to compare with the excellent interpretation of Beethoven’s Second Symphony here last month by Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Written merely a decade before the Seventh, it is a vestige of the vanishing world of Classicism, and Rouvali scrupulously avoided breathlessness, any sense of losing rhythmic clarity and control.
But in Salonen’s take on the more bacchic Seventh, you got a sense of revelry in the way this music is intricately constructed to seem on the verge of falling apart. Near the end of the first movement, there was the proper, slightly exhilarating, slightly queasy-making impression of different parts of the orchestra simultaneously speeding up and slowing down.
It was appropriate in a week of Philharmonic pride that the soloist earlier in the program was drawn from the ranks of the orchestra: Anthony McGill, the principal clarinet, who was featured in the American premiere of Salonen’s “kínēma.” Replace the “k” with a “c” and you get the idea; the piece was drawn from plans for a film score.
Salonen said from the stage that the roughly half-hour work, composed during the pandemic lockdown and scored for strings alone, was “practically” a clarinet concerto — made up of five “scenes” that he compared to individual rooms, each without the ranging or development we usually expect within concerto movements. (For those who wanted development, he said to laughter, there was the Beethoven symphony to come after intermission.)
The first scene is a shining, dewy dawn; the second, a soft, easygoing aria over a steady repeating bass line; the third, a bright, pizzicato accompaniment to a skipping, spattering clarinet; the fourth, a restrained elegy punctuated by sudden, swiftly abandoned surges.
The fifth begins with hymnlike solemnity, reminiscent of a sunset, with the violins making a high, smooth spearing sound that shades into the tone of the clarinet. Unexpectedly aggressive, sharply rhythmic music follows — this seems to be the material that Salonen joked earlier was an echo of “Psycho” — accompanied by siren cries from the soloist.
It felt odd to be unleashing so much drama at the very end, a big release of something that was never quite built up. But “kínēma” isn’t unpleasant, and McGill was a stylishly reserved soloist, not one to impose himself even in virtuosic passages — his tone mellow yet direct, sweet and refreshing.
The concert — beginning with Luciano Berio’s elegantly wry, 20th-century layering of four versions of an 18th-century Luigi Boccherini quintet — was a spirited union of new and old, and an aptly stirring celebration of exciting news.
New York Philharmonic
This program repeats through Saturday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan; nyphil.org.