SALONEN:  LAVariations.  Giro, for Orchestra.  Gambit, for Orchestra (Los Angeles Philharmonic Orch/Esa-Pekka Salonen, cond.)  Five Images After Sappho (Dawn Upshaw, soprano; London Sinfonietta, Esa-Pekka Salonen, cond.)  Mania for Cello and Ensemble (Anssi Karttunen, cellist; London Sinfonietta, Esa-Pekka Salonen, cond.
SONY CLASSICAL SK 89158 (F) (DDD) TT:  75:13

We've known for more than 15 years that Esa-Pekka Salonen is one of the leading conductors of his generation. Now we are invited to spend 75 minutes with him as a composer, on a major label for the first time, conducting five works written (or rewritten, in the case of Giro) since 1997. Unless one has nerves of steel or is narcoleptic, it's advised you listen one piece at a time. Other than Five Images after Sappho, "written for the voice of Dawn Upshaw" with reflective moments verging on tender, the rest is pretty hyper, without being pretty in the vernacular sense (i.e., Sondheim's "I'm so pretty" lyric in West Side Story). Salonen may no longer be a young turk in any group's avant-garde, but his music demands concentrated listening before it disentangles into assimilable shapes and patterns. Caveat: Assimilation is not the same thing as digestion, and I have the feeling that many listeners will opt for bulemia.

Salonen orchestrates with a sureness of purpose that reflects his years on the podium, and a special fondness for metal percussion effects. It is interesting to read in Ilkka Gramo's notes that he redid the 1981 Giro in 1997 because the original was "utterly difficult to perform." It has "a new middle section...the rhythms are much less complex, the orchestration is more clearly defined, and the harmony opens up to give a full-bodied sound by approaching a kind of tonality." But one still feels after 10'10"(the title derives from the Italian girare, meaning "to turn") that one'ís been spun in a dryer at the laundromat for 10 hours and 10 minutes. That's of course an exaggeration, but Giro, followed by 17 minutes of Mania (a Y2K perpetual-motion concerto for cello and 14 players), followed by nine minutes of Gambit (1998) can be disorienting without long pauses - say a day - between each. And this sequence still hasn't included the 20-minute LA Variations from 1996-97 (as in Los Angeles, not sol-la-ti-do). Don't expect a theme; it is "variations on two hexachords." A stylistic smörgasbord includes serialism, culminating in "The Big Machine," which Gramo hears as "a metaphor of the hectic lifestyle of our time, into which an individual is thrown like a grain of sand into a concrete mixer." The annotator as critic, by jove!

I haven't been in LA-la-land for, o God, nearly 30 years, but from 1943 through 1971 I was a frequent visitor. Sadly, it has become a hostile place indeed if Salonen is an accurate socio-musician ("the work as a whole is full of optimism" - not!). Parts are interesting, but I keep remembering L.A. as it once was, and these Variations depress me more than the throw-rug acoustics of Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, or Frank Gehry's design for the Disney Concert Hall, now a-building as the LA Phil's home away from The Music Center and Hollywood Bowl. The most engaging music on this disc are the six Sappho songs (which is not to say "Sapphic"in the Victorian sense). The Big Problem is that Ms. Upshaw, for all her musicianship and worshipping public, has basically a light soprano of limited color and narrow expressive range. I'd like to hear Lauren Flanigan sing them, not a faux boy-treble.

The orchestras, Salonen's own in LA and the London Sinfonietta, play with nuance as well as panache, unphased by the music's difficulties. The three full-orchestra pieces were recorded in Royce Hall on the UCLA campus, where London during the Mehta years achieved enduringly spectacular results. Five Images and Mania were digitaped in smaller London venues, and 24-bit-technically. Salonen's Sony debut as a composer is a first-class piece of transatlantic work. Musically, however, it strikes me as extrinsic and gesticular. More bluntly put, Boulez he ain't, much less Mahler.