What a fascinating character is Esa-Pekka Salonen. And driven: The Finnish-born conductor led the Los Angeles Philharmonic for nearly 20 years, upped its polish and worldwide cachet, established it as a cool hub of contemporary music, landed it in acoustically amazing Walt Disney Concert Hall, then left the ship. In the three years since, he has focused on his own composing -- that's what he originally planned to be, a composer -- and (no rest for the weary) has advanced some other projects.
One of these is his role as principal conductor and artistic adviser to the London-based Philharmonia Orchestra, with which he is in residency this weekend at Zellerbach Hall, performing three ambitious programs at the invitation of Cal Performances. Friday's opening salvo included his own spiraling "Helix" and not one, but two, seminal symphonies, by Beethoven and Berlioz. Phew! Salonen specializes in a sort of HD sound -- gleaming surfaces, sharp-edged contours -- and the immense orchestra sounded great, when you could hear it.
It's always a problem at acoustically impoverished Zellerbach. Put an orchestra onstage, and half the sound vanishes like smoke.
Friday, this was especially frustrating as Salonen and the Philharmonia -- more than 100 players -- were performing at a high level. Often you could hear everything: super-delicate pianissimos straight on up through pounding (but balanced) fortes, along with every gradation in between, all dialed in by Salonen -- and delivered with an expressive heft that I don't remember from his L.A. days. But there were times, too, when you could hear nada: in the first of two encores, Luciano Berio's "Ritirata notturna di Madrid," the timpanist might as well have been performing a pantomime.
The program began with "Helix," which opens with the deep b-woooom of a gong giving way to a restful theme led by the piccolo, which ushered in disquieting cellos, their sound growing like rain outside a window. Teeming with detail, the piece is a steady funneling of energy and suspense, self-multiplying. Through the strings, it also grew long-lined, romantic -- but with a shocking hatchet finish. Only nine minutes long, it was impressive; Salonen seemed to be saying, "This is who I am."
Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 followed. Here was the test, a piece that generates much of its excitement from rhythmic impulse -- and Salonen's approach, as much as anything, rests on whip-sharp rhythmic execution. He laid out the spacious introduction, segued to the fiercely galloping theme of the Vivace and began dialing up a storm. Exciting? Definitely. Even so, there was that sense of sound vanishing into the rafters; you wondered what the physical impact would have been in another hall.
The Allegretto's mourning theme was way more effective -- immensely soft, becoming a wave of grief, crystal clear through its variations, with broad stretchy tempos and a sense of wonder. On to the Scherzo: clean momentum, with Salonen holding his foot to the brake, slowly releasing it through an astonishingly subtle escalation of dynamic levels. And finally, the explosion -- surely the fastest (and loudest) fourth movement on record.
Honestly, you couldn't hear a thing in the way of detail during the finale; there were a handful of boos when it ended. But just watching those violinists, slashing away, I flashed on Pete Townshend of the Who. Mayhem. I loved it.
After intermission, Salonen conducted Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique," which owes debts to Beethoven and presages cinematic Mahler (whose Symphony No. 9 constitutes Sunday's program). The high point of this transfixing work -- the product of Berlioz's romantic obsessions and opium dreams -- came in the third movement, "Scene in the Country." You could just about smell the earth of the French countryside, where Berlioz spent his youth; the shepherds' duet of English horn and oboe was melancholy and pungent. Now fast forward to the finale, "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath": the deliciously drunken and corkscrewing clarinet; the ominous rumbles of the percussion section; the eerie clattering effects of the violins and violas, striking wooden bow sticks on strings.
In a pre-concert talk, Salonen had said he would like to put "danger back into the equation" for the fantastical symphony. Maybe in another concert hall, he would do just that. This was close.
Philharmonia Orchestra of London
Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
When: 7 p.m. Saturday (performing Berg's "Wozzeck") and
3 p.m. Sunday (performing Mahler's Symphony No. 9)
Where: Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley
Tickets: $30-$150 per program, 510-642-9988, www.calperformances.org