My last previous SFS concert, 18 months ago, was Esa-Pekka Salonen's last appearance as a guest conductor before he was scheduled to take over as music director. Since then they had a few concerts last spring, none of which I attended, and we're now a few weeks into the next season, and on Thursday I got to hear EPS in his new capacity. (The initials have not yet taken over. His parking space in the executive lot has his last name on it, as does everyone else's; previously it read "MTT".)
Vaccination was required at the door and masks inside. Possibly due to the exotic repertoire, this concert was lightly attended. I was the only person in the 34-seat balcony side box where I normally sit, and I think that's the first time this has happened since they abandoned Wednesday concerts.
As in San Jose, the string and percussion players were all masked, the winds and brass not. EPS, also unmasked, came out to applause and stood motionless, arms by his sides, on the podium. Linda Lukas, the third flute and about the only one left (the first two flutes, a married couple, both retired last year and have not yet been replaced), sat equally motionless, instrument raised to her lips. This tableau lasted for a long time as silence seeped throughout the auditorium.
Then, without any signal from EPS, she began the opening solo of Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. EPS started to conduct with a couple pickup bars before other players joined in. A delicately sumptuous, but vigorous and dramatic, performance of the work followed.
Connections between the concert's pieces were craftily planned. Where Debussy was inspired by a poem by Mallarmé, Kaija Saariaho (who turned 69 on Thursday - happy birthday!) was inspired by a poem by Saint-John Perse for her Aile du songe. This is functionally a brief flute concerto. The orchestra of strings and percussion (no winds) mostly hovered in the background, spectrally, while soloist Claire Chase, who came on stage with a bit of a Groucho walk, made her instrument jump around with various flute-like sounds and a few un-flute-like noises which sounded rather intestinal.
Perse's and hence Saariaho's work was intended to evoke birds, and so - as its title proclaims - was Olivier Messiaen's Oiseaux exotiques, which is functionally a brief piano concerto. Here the pianist, Jeremy Denk, and the orchestra (winds and percussion, no strings) were more in it together than in the Saariaho, but despite the claim of being based on birdsong, this hunk of angular modernism with post-Stravinsky whooping noises more evoked the sounds of a factory. I like some Messiaen, but not this one.
Lastly we returned to Debussy for a run through La mer. This rendition got warm applause from the audience but did not please me. The slow parts sounded tentative while the fast ones were increasingly hasty and brusque. I'm hoping for a better result when I return next week.