Pärt is such sweet sorrow | Concerts, Reviews | www.arvopart.info

Pärt is such sweet sorrow

Orange County Register – Timothy Mangan – Esa-Pekka Salonen is back in town for a couple of weeks to conduct three new works commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Sunday afternoon's audience, in Walt Disney Concert Hall, greeted the maestro, now in his final months as music director, like a returning hero, with cheers and applause that didn't stop when he got to the podium. Before conducting a note of music, he had already taken his second bow.

The main order of business, if you can call it that, was the premiere of Arvo Pärt's Symphony No. 4, "Los Angeles." The Estonian composer, 72, is a cult figure, but, in the manner of cult figures these days, hugely popular, too. He writes music that crosses party lines, of ineffable beauty and soulful mystery, a religious minimalism that stretches time as a matter of course.

Still, it is, perhaps, an acquired taste. For listeners (such as this one) who prefer a piece of music to go somewhere, and to make that getting somewhere a central part of the show, a piece by Pärt can be like a drive through the San Joaquin Valley. The Symphony No. 4 is no exception; it made 35 minutes seem longer. If meditation is your thing, then Pärt's your man.

There's no denying, though, that the new symphony, the composer's first since 1971, is gorgeous and yearning and earnest. It doesn't really challenge the ears any more than does a set of wind chimes, blowing in a gentle afternoon breeze. Written for strings and percussion, the symphony uses silence as an integral part of its message; tempos, except very briefly, are slow. Pärt, as a rule, doesn't do allegros.

So, what happens? A harp plucks a lone note, the high strings play a rich progression, a glockenspiel rings. The music turns and floats gently, this way and that, like clouds overlapping. The meaningful gap between major and minor is repeatedly plumbed. Pregnant silences dot this universe. It sounds like attenuated Sibelius. Dissonances gather and disperse. A brief, thundering climax is eventually heard, after which, a slow, skeletal march. Then a harp and a drum offer a quiet, lonely cadence.

Pärt dedicated the work to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, now a Siberian prisoner. The composer himself was on hand to accept the accolades, and sign CDs.

After intermission, Emanuel Ax joined Salonen and the orchestra for a performance of the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms. Ax is an honest and straightforward musician who doesn't exaggerate, voices well, articulates clearly, phrases crisply. He rarely shows much temperament, and that proved frustrating at times during this reading. One could practically hear him subdividing the beat. Still, his expert touch captured the dappled poetry of the slow movement wonderfully. As for Salonen and the Philharmonic, they went for the gusto, providing incisive and exciting support.

The concert opened with a smartly accented and gung ho account of Mozart's Overture to "Der Schauspieldirektor" (aka "The Impresario").