Glamorous, gladiatorial, faintly disreputable, the concerto is an essential feature of modern concert life. Few symphony orchestras venture far into a season without summoning a soloist to execute the majestic opening arpeggios of Beethoven's "Emperor," the throat-clearing double-stops of the Dvořák Cello Concerto, or some other familiar bold gesture. Orchestral economics would presumably collapse without a supply of celebrity soloists playing celebrity works. The disreputability of the genre has to do with its slightly seedy showmanship, its carnival trappings. The virtuoso violinist is a devilish hypnotist, descended from Paganini.
The other day, the composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen sat in a sparsely decorated office in West Los Angeles, eying the score of his new cello concerto, which Yo-Yo Ma, Alan Gilbert, and the New York Philharmonic will perform on March 15-18, at David Geffen Hall. The state of the world was weighing on him, and he wondered what a large-scale instrumental work could offer. "I suppose that to write a piece like this is, in itself, an optimistic gesture," he said. "To devote thousands of hours to such a thing, over two years--you have to hope that people out there can accept a certain degree of complexity. I'm always suspicious of things that see themselves as art.
Maybe I'm just getting older, but the music of Sibelius is starting to make me cry. No, not the fiery pieces, like the Violin Concerto (I know the thrill; I grew up on the Heifetz recording), or the plangent and pleading ones, like the Second Symphony, but the works about struggle and limits--like the Seventh Symphony (1924), his final essay in the form and one of the last pieces he completed before his puzzling thirty-year retirement. The opening of the work is little more than an upward-moving scale. But, conducted with the authority that Esa-Pekka Salonen brought to it last Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall, with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the piece carried the weight of a lifetime's purpose. By the time he composed it, Sibelius had learned to make the grandest statements with the most modest of materials, and, having reached perfection in a mere twenty-three minutes of symphonic score, he realized that his work was done.
Technology, globalization, the levelling of cultural genres, and the ever-expanding options for entertainment and diversion have placed the empyrean realm of classical composition--and its living, thousand-year tradition--into a maelstrom of conflicting contexts. For Timo Andres, one of several brilliant composers to come out of the Yale School of Music over the last quarter century, context is commonplace. Not only is he part of a composer group, Sleeping Giant, which creates multi-movement, collective works, but he is also the member of that group whose music is most connected to the greater classical heritage. His new piano concerto, "The Blind Banister," is a deeply complex tribute to Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major; you can hear both works performed by Jonathan Biss at Caramoor (July 10), part of a concert with the conductor Joshua Weilerstein and the Orchestra of St. Luke's that also features tribute-type pieces by Haydn and Martin?. Andres (born in 1985) is nothing if not a millennial, and his "bloglet" contains semi-snarky pronouncements that can be read variously as parody, self-pity, or misdirection ("Composing is proving no easier in the new year than it has been in past years . . . I'm not trying to be dramatic; I'm merely trying to complain.")
The anxiety of identity, as emigrants from one part of the world enter another, as individuals empower themselves by practicing identity politics, is a great issue of our day. Music can help, as even a seemingly innocuous and poorly attended concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall showed Friday night. The conductor, Stéphane Denève, and the soloist, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, were French, yet as personalities as different as they are alike. The concert contained two French pieces, Fauré's Suite from "Pelléas et Mélisande," a work so pleasantly genial and well known that it that no longer signifies a national style. The other, Debussy's "La Mer," however, was crucial in defining French music for the 20th century.