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Review: A Conductor Surprises by Embracing the Ordinary

The conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen tends to get noticed for his ambitious, even outlandish projects.

Perfume cannons puffing out scent alongside the music. A rare performance of one of the piano’s most gargantuan concertos. Contemporary opera in the concert hall. A roboticist being included among his artistic collaborators. Ample helpings of his own works. (Salonen is the rare maestro who is also a successful composer.)

But once all the perfume has dissipated, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Salonen, who led the New York Philharmonic on Wednesday at David Geffen Hall, is, at core, simply an excellent conductor.

The Philharmonic program was unusual for him in that it was so, well, uncreative. No premieres, no stagings, no intriguing juxtapositions. Just two classic pieces — Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 and Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” — that, in the style of old-fashioned orchestra programming, seemed to have been thrown together arbitrarily. And yet it was a terrific concert, overseen by Salonen with his characteristic fiery clarity.

Fiery clarity is a good way of describing his most recent career move, too. Classical music is, outwardly at least, meticulously polite. Few musicians leave positions amid publicly verbalized anger.

But in March, when Salonen announced he wouldn’t renew his contract as the music director of the San Francisco Symphony, he told the truth — or at least his truth. He had made his decision, he said, “because I do not share the same goals for the future of the institution as the Board of Governors does.”

By the industry’s standards, this was an expletive-ridden rant. It quickly became clear that the problem was money. The San Francisco Symphony has hobbled out of the pandemic even more deficit-laden than it was before; its expensive promises to Salonen — like that team of artistic collaborators, roboticist and all — were going to need to be curtailed.

The funny thing about Wednesday’s concert in New York is that it was exactly the kind of program that would be his future had Salonen chosen to remain in San Francisco: meat and potatoes repertoire, without the fancy trimmings.

But even without them, the Philharmonic played beautifully for him on Wednesday. The Shostakovich concerto was dotted with eerily mellow rips of brass near the start, a hushed dusk in the strings at the start of the second movement and characterful pierces from the winds in the final Allegro. Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the soloist, played with a rich yet focused tone, and he didn’t indulge in excessive emotion. This resulted in a performance that was modest, straight-faced and fundamentally serene — but also a little cool, a little efficient. The piece seemed to sail by briskly.

It was hard to remember the concerto at all after the monster that is Berlioz’s “Symphonie.” Last year, I wrote that the Philharmonic’s rendition of this score under Herbert Blomstedt was “leisurely, mellow, thoroughly pastoral.” That could hardly have been further from Salonen’s neurotically unsettled, icy-hot take, which grabbed every opportunity to emphasize off-kilter rhythms and changeable textures.

The opening “Reveries, Passions” section had a dewy freshness to the sound that could shift, in a moment, to intense fullness, and then back again. Salonen couldn’t keep the long central “Scene in the Fields” section from feeling like it lingers. But it had quietly been building tension, with an undercurrent of anxiety — an anticipation of the trembling violas a little later on — even in Ryan Roberts’s quiet, plangent English horn shepherd calls.

Salonen embraced the sudden swerves and floodlit brashness of the “March to the Scaffold,” which was, as it is too rarely, genuinely scary. And the finale, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” was raucous but never messy — a ferocious, fantastic party.

New York Philharmonic

This program continues through Saturday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan; nyphil.org.

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