Tremendous evening of Tan Dun and Ravel by Colin Currie, the Helsinki Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen

Colin Currie, Esa Pekka Salonen and the Helsinki Philharmonic rehearsing Tan Dun’s Water Concerto (1998) at the Helsinki Music Centre on Tuesday. © Jari Kallio

While most European countries are going through a second lockdown, live music keep happening in Finland. In the course of the autumn season, the Finnish audiences have been spoiled with top-notch performances of the most fascinating repertoire. 

Over the past couple of months, Esa-Pekka Salonen has appeared on the podium of the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra, the Finnish National Opera and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. This week Salonen stepped in for Leonard Slatkin, who was unable to join the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, due travel restrictions resulting from COVID-19 counter-measures. 

The feeling of homecoming was tangible, for as a young horn-player in the seventies, Salonen joined the ranks of the Helsinki Philharmonic, before assuming a career in conducting. 

For the concerts at the Helsinki Music Centre on Wednesday and Thursday, Salonen and the orchestra were joined by percussionist Colin Currie. Since the premiere performances of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Incantations (2008), Currie has been a frequent visitor here in Finland.

Only this January, Currie was in Lahti, recording Kalevi Aho’s Sieidi (2010) with the Lahti Symphony and Dima Slobodeniouk for the astounding premiere release on BIS records. Now he was back in Helsinki, rejoining the Helsinki Philharmonic, a trusted collaborator since the first recording of the Rautavaara concerto.     

Tan Dun’s Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra (1998) is truly one-of-a-kind piece. Dedicated to the memory of Tōru Takemitsu (1930-1996), the concerto features a percussion soloist performing on an intriguing variety of water instruments, joined by two orchestral percussionists and a fairy standard symphonic ensemble. 

While this highly unusual setup creates some fascinating visual drama, the concerto is not a showpiece per se. What really makes the piece striking, is the fact that even with all those water bowls, water drums, waterphones and water gongs aboard, the concerto is conceived in a completely organic manner, yielding to an astounding experience. 

The concerto is based on a more-or-less traditional three-movement structure, with a largo molto rubato prelude added. The soloist enters the hall during the prelude, playing an improvised intrada on a waterphone. 

The two orchestral percussionists, antiphonally stationed on the opposite corners of the front stage, answer the soloist’s call, as he walks down the aisle. With the misty hue of the three waterphones ringing in the air, the orchestra enters, with six irregularity accented sforzato grunts from the brass, in counterpoint to sustained string lines. 

With the soloist onstage, the prelude ends with a deep tutti chord, bridging into the first movement proper. The percussionists dip their hands in large water bowls, creating rhythms figures and splashes, amazingly integrated with the orchestral part. 

Using water cups drums and gongs partly submerged into the water bowls, the soloist and his two companions draw intriguing sonorities from their watery main instruments. 

Tan Dun’s outstandingly crafted orchestral fabric combines standard and extended playing techniques into various dream-like sonorities, sometimes blending seamlessly with the solo part, and is other passages, providing thrilling contrasts. 

An improvised cadenza closes the first movement, with the soloist echoing motivic fragments from the previous passages by dipping his fingers into the water bowl. A mesmerizing section, both aurally and visually, the cadenza casts a luminous spell over the listener. 

Colin Currie performing the first cadenza of Tan Dun’s Water Concerto, with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Helsinki Philharmonic ready to join in. © Jari Kallio

The second movement opens with water gongs, joined by a gorgeous solo cello line. Following the slow introduction, the music gains rhythmic momentum, with the whole orchestra joining in section by section. The soloist proceeds with water agogo bells, beating out some extraordinary rhythmic motives before switching to more mellow-sounding water drums. 

Following a wondrously busy passage for the full orchestra, the second cadenza ensues. A semi-improvised passage for water drums and water tubes, the cadenza provides a meditative interlude before the full orchestra returns, brining the movement to its conclusion. 

During the transition to the third movement, while playing a water shaker, the soloist moves behind the orchestra and picks up a prepared vibraphone. A wonderful dialogue with the soloist, the two percussionists and the orchestra ensues, setting the movement well into motion. 

In the course of an orchestral interlude, the soloist returns to the stage front. Water drums, agogo bells and water gongs resume, leading the percussion textures back to the beginning, ending up with the hue of the waterphones. 

A powerhouse coda for full orchestra follows, closing with a wash, as the soloist raises a water stainer. Once emptied, the orchestra provides one final tutti chord, thus bringing the Water Concerto to its magnificent close. 

Putting a long story short, the performance by Currie, Salonen and the Helsinki Philharmonic on Wednesday was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever experienced in a concert hall. Everybody involved was fully committed to bringing the Water Concerto into being, resulting in an unforgettable adventure. 

Currie’s command over the solo part was simply admirable, resulting in a superlative account of Tan Dun’s brilliantly conceived percussion textures. With compelling contributions from the Helsinki Philharmonic percussionists, the stage front was transformed into a realm of pure magic.

With Salonen on the podium, the Helsinki Philharmonic gave an astonishing performance of the orchestral fabric. Fabulously coloured by various extended techniques, including clapped mouthpieces and several types of pizzicati, Tan Dun’s masterful orchestration was realized with inspired perfection. 

Ever attuned to the percussion lines, Salonen kept the orchestra in apt balance throughout, resulting in luminous clarity. With well-articulated rhythms, the orchestral part conveyed an incessant impetus, ever wonderfully in accord with the tremendous energy of Currie’s performance. 

What, one might ask, could possibly follow such a highlight? At the Music Centre the answer was Maurice Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye (1908-10/1911-12), aballet score of immaculate beauty. Ravishingly conducted by Salonen only a couple of weeks ago with the Philharmonia Orchestra, the expectations were obviously sky-high for the Helsinki Philharmonic performance. 

The Helsinki Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen performing Ravel at the Helsinki Music Centre on Wednesday. © Jari Kallio

Salonen, of course, knows the score inside out, beyond its orchestral ballet guise. In our recent conversation the composer, conductor and professor emeritus Atso Almila, Salonen’s classmate from their days with the legendary Jorma Panula, recalled how the two aspiring composer-conductors used to play Ravel’s four-hand piano original. 

Over the years I’ve been blessed with many memorable Ravel performances conducted by Salonen, from an early-nineties Avanti! tour to recent takes on Daphnis et Chloe (1909-12) with the Philharmonia and the Finnish National Opera

While the name of Ravel may not be the first thing that one associates with the core repertoire of the Helsinki Philharmonic, it should be noted that the orchestra, teamed with pianist Andreas Haefliger and their Chief Conductor Susanna Mälkki, recently released one of the finest accounts of the Concerto for the Left Hand (1929-30) ever committed to disc. 

Following in the heels of that wondrous recorded take, the orchestra and Salonen enchanted their Music Centre audience with Ma mère l’Oye of utmost beauty and expressivity. 

In its ballet version, Ma mère l’Oye contains six scenes, framed by a prelude and four short interludes, especially written for the staged edition. Each scene is based on an iconic fairy-tale, including The Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty, among others. Instead of telling the tales in musical means, Ravel’s score evokes impressions and free associations rooted in these fantastic realms, as if reflections of early memories. 

Scored for an orchestra double winds and horns, harp, celesta, strings and a marvellous set-up of percussion, Ma mère l’Oye is clad in delicate textures of ravishing colours. The orchestration bears an aura of chamber music, with luminous solo passages for violin, harp and flute, to point out a few examples. 

In contrast, Ravel’s embodiment of the Beast via a formidable contrabassoon solo is the perfect musical realization of grumpiness. The muted horn-calls, in turn, seem to summon something dazzling and distant, whereas the oriental raiments of the Empress of the Pagodas are pure Technicolor in their evocativeness.

Rounding off with the most poignant Apotheosis, The Fairy Garden, Ravel’s score culminates with the unveiling of a far green country under a swift sunrise, as J. R. R. Tolkien would have put it, with the full orchestra sounding one of those magnificent Ravelian crescendos. 

Splendidly performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic and Salonen, Ma mère l’Oye was awash with colour and textural finesse, abundant with admirable solo lines, alongside a stellar ensemble performance. Manifested in the vividness of each scene, Salonen and the orchestra were excellent story-tellers, providing the audience with an enchanting instrumental dramaturgy. 

The stage setup for Tan Dun’s Water Concerto with Colin Currie, the Helsinki Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen. © Jari Kallio

The wonderful combination of Tan Dun and Ravel was an unexpected pairing, resulting from a programme change brought upon by Slatkin’s cancellation, with the Ravel ballet replacing Brahms Serenade No. 1 (1857-59). As seen durning the pandemic, top-class programming may appear in surprising guises.               

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

Colin Currie, percussion

Tan Dun: Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra (1998)

Maurice Ravel: Ma mere l’Oye (1908-19/1911-12) – Ballet

Music Centre, Helsinki

Wednesday 11 November 2020, 7 pm 

© Jari Kallio

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