Esa-Pekka Salonen; photo by Katja Tähjä

Not until the 1910s, roughly speaking, did the composer and the performer split. Before then, composers played (or sang or conducted), and players (and singers and conductors) composed. Only in the last hundred years or so has there been a division between composers and performers.

But there are exceptions, and Esa-Pekka Salonen is one. He is a conductor and a composer. And with the New York Philharmonic on Friday morning, he was featured in both roles.

He began with music of Ravel, the Mother Goose Suite. Salonen is not a conductor you’d necessarily pick for this music. His leading traits are braininess, stringency, coolness—a coolness that can turn to frost. But his Ravel was exemplary. Batonless, he conducted this music with great delicacy and sensitivity. The suite was beautifully simple. The Philharmonic’s woodwinds, all of them, were superb, deserving some kind of medal.

I almost had to rub my ears (if you can imagine such a thing) at the beauty of sound I was hearing. This was for two reasons: First, beauty is not known as a priority for Salonen; second, beauty is not known as a priority for the New York Philharmonic. But if the Boston Symphony under Munch sounded better in Ravel, I’d be surprised.

Next on the program, we had Salonen: his violin concerto, written in 2009. The soloist was Leila Josefowicz, the violinist with whom he premiered the work. Josefowicz is also a player of the violin concerto by John Adams, written in 1993. She has made something of a second career out of it. When she took the stage at Avery Fisher Hall, there were cries and murmurs of “Oh, wow.” She looked smashing in a formal, light-yellow dress.

The first movement of the Salonen concerto has much perpetual motion, which is a hallmark of this composer, I believe. There is also a good deal of “soft percussion,” which is to say bells and the like. Over and over, we hear long notes surrounded by flitting.

This concerto has a program of sorts, meaning that the composer has spoken of his intentions, his vision. For the second movement, he says, “I imagined a room, silent: All you can hear is the heartbeat of the person next to you . . .” In the next movement, “the pulse is no longer a heartbeat.” The music is “bizarre and urban”—just so. It is also strongly American. (Salonen spent seventeen years in Los Angeles, as conductor of the Philharmonic there.)

The fourth movement is an “Adieu,” although the composer says “this is not a specific farewell to anything in particular.” The music is arresting in its rhythm, and it ends somewhat surprisingly: in an Impressionistic vein, I would say.

Salonen makes his violinist work like a modern Paganini, and Josefowicz handled her duties with determination and panache. It must be both reassuring and nerve-racking to play a concerto with its composer on the podium. And Salonen is to be congratulated for taking pen to paper (or whatever people do these days). It used to be, composing music was a large part of what it meant to be a musician.

After intermission, we had a Sibelius symphony—the Fifth. You may think it’s natural for a Finn such as Salonen to conduct this composer, and it is. But know this: When he was a young man, he wanted nothing to do with Sibelius. He was put off by the national reverence for the national composer.

Two years ago, he spoke to me about this in a public interview (Salzburg). Many young people, he said, go through a period of rebellion, a “kill your father” stage. He fled to Italy to study, wanting a “Sibelius-free zone.” But something interesting happened: He bought the score of the Seventh Symphony, for the price of an espresso. He was struck by the originality and excellence of the piece—and grew to love Sibelius, not because the great man was Finnish, but because he’s great.

Salonen gave us a first-rate performance of the Fifth with the New York Phil. First, the orchestra began absolutely together—a minor miracle. Salonen was highly disciplined, as usual. But he was also relaxed and musical. He conducted with an open fist (closing it where appropriate). The first movement ended thrillingly, causing at least one member of the audience to say, “Yay!” Some of the players onstage grinned at this.

Throughout the symphony, Salonen did neither too much nor too little. He governed the experience, but the music seemed to play itself. The horns were in fine shape—flabbergastingly fine shape. In the last movement, some of the tingling anticipation was not quite together, and could have been more tingling, too. But there was very little to complain about. And the final chords and notes, which are seldom together, were absolutely, perfectly together. This was a miracle maybe a little more than minor.

Ladies and gentlemen, Esa-Pekka Salonen has always been a good musician and an impressive musician—very smart and talented. In recent years, I have come to believe he’s a great musician.

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