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Salonen Brings Hungarian Echoes to the NY Philharmonic

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There is a mini-festival trend afoot, and it's easy to see why: a themed series "productizes" an orchestra's long music season and give it bursts of definition. The NY Philharmonic's Hungarian Echoes set of four concerts also provided a showcase for Esa-Pekka Salonen to demonstrate his florid conducting style. Salonen works mainly in London these days, but burnished his U.S. reputation as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1992 to 2009.

You might expect a program of Hungarian-derived music to be folksy, one-dimensional, or freighted with Liszt, but the final show of the four Tuesday night was none of those. Liszt was nowhere (even in this 200th birthday year), and the concert offered dramatic contrasts in period, style, and ensemble.

A chamber subset of the full Philharmonic opened the evening with Haydn's sixth symphony (Le Matin), whose claim to the Hungarian theme rested on the composer's residence in Hungary when he wrote the piece. Thin reasoning perhaps, but the bassoon and double bass duet in the "Menuet" has an earthy Balkan jocularity and the whole work is vigorously charming.

The piano concerto of Gyorgy Ligeti anchored the first half, with pianist and trailblazing new music advocate Marino Formenti filling in for Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a Boulez-mentored modernist. Formenti has performed avant garde stunts such as 24-hour concerts, and this season is taking his Kurtag's Ghosts around in recital; I will hear it at Duke University next week.

The Ligeti can barely be considered a piano concerto despite its title. It is a chamber work scored for an intimate 15-player orchestra that includes a piano part. The keyboard does not discernibly declaim or take the musical lead. The writing is supporting and textural, and cannot sensibly be considered a solo part. Formenti nonetheless received a soloist's bravos after the final bone-jangling measure, perhaps in admiration for heroically cutting through the dense thickets of pointed syncopations and thorny note clusters without leaving a drop of blood on the stage.

There might have also been relief that the ordeal was over. The audience was restless with discomfort over the piece's challenges. Jagged silences competed with startling percussive outbursts. A rogue cell phone whose squawks bizarrely harmonized with woodwind wailings in the second movement caused tittering throughout the hall. Salonen abandoned his flowing style and carved the air with angular beat indicators against which the concentrating players could reference their relentlessly intricate parts.

Post-intermission, the audience hungered for something large -- the full band, fireworks after sparklers. Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra is a perfect orchestral warhorse, as colorful as Stravinsky, as mercurial as Prokofiev, as resourcefully orchestrated as Ravel, featuring near-Bachian counterpoint in some sections and eruptive emotional climaxes. It is astounding to imagine Bartok setting down this landmark of orchestral literature, frail and weak with leukemia as he was in 1943.

Here Salonen showed his rehearsal chops, leading the Philharmonic with energy and without histrionics. Warmth and precision blended satisfyingly; whimsical moments were given their due if not fully indulged. New York is not Cleveland and might never be, but there was a luminosity to the shimmering string work that uplifted Bartok's darker thematic grounding. It was a memorable Concerto for Orchestra performance, and the audience gave Salonen four return trips to receive its praise.