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Esa-Pekka Salonen with the CSO makes a composer’s case for Lutoslawski

Yo-Yo Ma

Yo-Yo Ma

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◆ 8 p.m. Saturday

◆ Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

◆ Tickets, $60-$290

◆ (312) 294-3000,

Updated: March 7, 2013 3:45PM

Esa-Pekka Salonen thinks of himself first as a composer and then a conductor. Even if much of his time over the last 25 years has been given to leading orchestras, including 17 years as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, his point is an important one. He has created a significant number of works during this period, some of them of major size and impact. But in terms of his podium life, his self-understanding shows in his selection of works to perform and how he perceives them. He sees music with the eyes of someone who makes music and looks for kindred spirits in that music-making.

Two composers to whom he feels closest are responsible for three-quarters ­— and the three-quarters that are essential hearing — of this week’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts. A packed audience Thursday night at Symphony Center not only got to hear three greatly worthy rarities from Sibelius and Witold Lutoslawski but also to hear them in riveting performances that brought out the best in the Finnish guest conductor and the CSO.

Certainly the presence on the bill of cello superstar Yo-Yo Ma helped ticket sales. But Ma’s putting himself fully behind a modern work assured close attention from listeners. Lutoslawski, Poland’s leading postwar composer, has been the subject of international commemorations to mark his recent 100th birthday anniversary. It’s a shame, especially given the CSO’s association with his works, that these performances of his 1970 Cello Concerto are the only local centenary programming.

Written for the late Msistlav Rostropovich, the work is virtuosic in the best sense: It takes a great player to carry it off, but not one gesture or note is written for show. Played here before only in 2002 by Lynn Harrell, the concerto uses tonal language but subjects it to rhythmic and dramatic disruption, confrontation between soloist and orchestra, and jarring shifts of tempo and volume over nearly 25 minutes. Some listeners, including program annotator Steven Stucky, the American composer and Lutoslawski analyst, see the work as a lightly veiled political response of a man who lived through the worst disasters of the 20th century, showing the fight of the individual to save his integrity from oppression.

In any case, the work is always compelling, and in addition to Ma’s total identification with the extensive solo soliloquies — by turns questioning, mournful, defiant, tentative — there are powerful and sarcastic brass fanfares, and whirling all-instrument passages combining rhythmic variation with unified forward movement. The curtain calls for Ma went on and on but this is not a work easily followed by an encore.

Salonen admires the middle or third way of Lutoslawaski, with whom he worked privately and extensively, neither following the strictures of the modernist avant-garde nor trying to re-create musical language of the past. For a Finn, bred on his country’s national composer Sibelius, it’s an understandable connection. Sibelius, who stopped composing in the 1920s, around the time the young Lutsolawski started down his own road, was perhaps the greatest exponent of a personal, uncategorizable style of 20th century music (and one that has won a tremendous following).

Unlike the triumphant or at least life-affirming aspects of “Finlandia” and the composer’s popular first, second and fifth symphonies, Salonen offered the Sibelius of resignation in the 1905-1906 tone poem “Pohjola’s Daughter,” the story of a wandering minstrel who falls in love with the title character but is defeated by the challenges she gives him. The Seventh Symphony, sketched out in 1914-15 but not composed until 1923-24, proved to be Sibelius’ last, and it, too, holds almost unbearable beauty, without movement breaks, that ends in silence. Salonen more than made the case for these works taking regular places in the repertoire. Kenneth Olsen, sitting in the principal cello’s chair, set the tone for both works with the bass-like richness in the tone poem’s opening solo. Principal trombone Jay Friedman led the stark brass choir in the symphony.

Of Tchaikovsky’s early tone poem “Francesca da Rimini” (1876), one recalls the book review line attributed to Abraham Lincoln: People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like. Kitschy, obvious, beyond sentimental, it was given as serious and caring a performance by Salonen and the CSO as could be, with fine solo work by clarinet John Bruce Yeh and English horn Scott Hostetler. It was almost refreshing to see late walkouts during this work when there was pin-drop attentiveness during the more challenging pieces that carried this program.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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