When Esa-Pekka Salonen took over as artistic advisor and principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra of London in 2006, the group had a discography of outstanding recordings, a reputation as a touring orchestra of the first rank, and a distinguished place in the music calendar of its home city. Salonen brought the Philharmonia a vision for the future, and now that his passing of the baton in Los Angeles to Gustavo Dudamel is old news, the maestro is once again in full effect with this dynamic and powerful unit. The quality of the choices he has made for the group has become clear on this very impressive United States tour. There are three programs — Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, a concert version of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, and the one we heard here in Santa Barbara, which combines Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 with Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. While it is perfectly understandable to feel as though Santa Barbara got the most conservative program, it makes less sense to be disappointed. The Granada is turning out to be a superior acoustic space for orchestral music, and the experience of hearing the war horses of the classical repertoire in it is a key part of the break-in process in which we all ought to revel. Friday was a night when we did.
The Beethoven symphony cycle that the orchestra is currently embarked upon is Salonen’s second journey through the composer’s works, the first having been with the Los Angeles Phil. He’s got a composer’s interest in form, and the group expressed it beautifully with the freshness, drama, and sheer astonishment in the Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92. Salonen has always been a physical conductor, but he almost seems to have gained in vigor with this new assignment. The finale in particular had a full-throttle passion that shook the hall.
The Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 of Berlioz combines the compositional techniques of Beethoven with the intense exoticism that only a lovesick 27-year-old (which Berlioz was at the time) could provide. It’s long, it’s gorgeous, and it makes a massive showstopper for a large European orchestra like the Philharmonia. The trumpets, Robert Farley and Paul Sharp, came in for early recognition from the maestro at the end of the concert, as did the rest of the brass and winds. The adventurousness and expertise of these players has been a mark of distinction throughout Salonen’s tenure. When the Philharmonia opened its 2012 season in London with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Farley and Sharp played it using the “natural,” valveless trumpets of the baroque period. Nothing quite so unusual was attempted on Friday, but the consummate musicianship of the entire ensemble made this an evening to remember, both for devotees of the brilliant Esa-Pekka Salonen and for the sake of hearing one of the world’s most thrilling symphony orchestras.