A favorite of Santa Barbara audiences during his 17 years as the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen made a triumphant return to the Granada on Wednesday at the head of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra. The program, which featured works by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Bruckner, proved an ideal platform to showcase the Philharmonia’s lush sound, crisp articulation, and, particularly in the Bruckner, its massive power.
Schoenberg’sVerklärte Nacht, Op. 4, is the composer’s best-known work, and, along with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, is among the most widely lauded avant-garde compositions of the 20th century. Inspired by a poem that defied bourgeois sexual mores, the work describes an eerie and unsettling arc as it drifts from D Minor to D Major. Under Salonen, the Philharmonia’s strings turned the forbidding nocturnal strangeness of the piece into a mesmerizing, oceanic experience of the range and colors of their instruments.
For Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in E Major, the focus pivoted from the strings to the brass, in particular the tubas. A section of special “Wagner” tubas plays a key role in the stunning crescendos that erupt throughout this sensational symphony. The Philharmonia musicians are without peer when it comes to deploying the full range of techniques and instruments available to them, up to and including having the principal tuba player switch seats for different passages. The sheer volume that makes Bruckner’s Seventh such an unforgettable live experience was enhanced by the supreme precision and control with which these players handled every detail. The Philharmonia Orchestra received a raucous standing ovation for what was unquestionably one of the most intense performances of the season.