Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

At Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is playing a series of three concerts, with an accent on Mahler. The first concert was last night. The orchestra is directed, not by its longtime capo, James Levine, but by a guest, Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Finn. He is best known for a long tenure at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Last night’s concert began with excerpts from Mahler’s Knaben Wunderhorn, and there were two singers on hand: Susan Graham, the mezzo-soprano, and Matthew Polenzani, the tenor. They had sung together not long before in a Metropolitan Opera gala. On that occasion, they performed the (great) love duet from Berlioz’s Troyens.

(I comment on the gala in my “New York Chronicle” for the June issue of the magazine, just out today. The issue at large is here, and the chronicle here.)

Last night, Ms. Graham was in very good voice. Also, she sang with character. Not every note was perfect—perfectly in tune, for example—but when is it? I like to say that life is not a studio recording (thank heaven).

The song “Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?” requires some long, long breaths. Ms. Graham breathed where other singers do not—but she did so discreetly. In fact, she was a model of discretion in breathing. To the next song, “Das irdische Leben,” she lent true pathos.

As for Mr. Polenzani, he was in splendid voice, which is almost needless to say. He seems to have been born with splendid voice. Yet there was an issue.

The Met Orchestra spends most of its time in a pit, of course, but last night they were on a stage, and they were very, very numerous. They looked like the Symphony of a Thousand up there. And they sometimes covered Polenzani. He was best heard in that knockout song by Mahler, “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen.”

By “knockout,” I don’t mean that the song is loud. It isn’t. But it knocks you out.

Throughout the songs, Maestro Salonen was poised, smart, and musical. He was usually matter-of-fact—as in “Rheinlegendchen.” This song, in particular, benefited from his matter-of-factness. “Rheinlegendchen” and other songs had due simplicity and charm. And those two qualities are linked, I think, certainly in Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

Now, Salonen’s conducting was not for everyone, as was made clear at intermission. I got an earful. Some prefer a more Bernsteinian approach: more milking, more exploiting, more emphasizing—more more. But I appreciated the resolute unfussiness of Salonen. This is a matter of taste.

And so it was in the big work after intermission, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. I will make some general remarks about the first two movements.

From Salonen’s baton, they were brisk and clean—and, to my mind, musical. The score was not just clean but cleansed. The gunk that is sometimes added to Mahler was cleared away. Not allowed to appear.

I thought of a comment I once made about Yevgeny Mravinsky in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It was as though the barnacles had been scraped off an old, proud ship. The ship was new and gleaming again.

Whatever you thought of Salonen’s conducting—and you may well not have liked it—he displayed sheer leadership. Brilliant leadership. There was no doubt about what he wanted, and no doubt about his ability to communicate it to an orchestra, and no doubt about that orchestra’s responsiveness.

The Met Orchestra, last night, was a gleaming machine.

Of some interest is what Salonen did not do. He often let players play on their own. There was a fascinating non-cue of a key French-horn moment in the second movement.

Speaking of horns: they are critical in this work, and the Met’s horns were stable, a blessing. Salonen himself is a horn player, or ex–horn player. And I thought of something he told me once in an interview.

He knows how hard the French horn is to play. “I don’t even look at them. And the worse they play, the less I look at them.”

For my money, that quotation could be in Bartlett’s.

In the third movement, Salonen was a little too brisk for me—this despite Mahler’s admonition not to schlep, not to drag. Salonen was just slightly cold, for my taste. The klezmer movement was totally unmilked. Sort of sped through. There was nothing Jewish about it—it was more like Finnish, frankly. But Salonen has a conception of the piece, and a case.

The final movement began with due terror. As the music proceeded, the playing was amazingly incisive. Salonen was a no-nonsense dynamo. As in the third movement, I would have appreciated more exploitation—more of the Bernstein. But, again, Salonen had a case, and I stood and bravo-ed along with most everyone else.

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