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Esa-Pekka Salonen's "Foreign Bodies" at the New York Philharmonic

Ny phil obsidian teanPhoto: Chris Lee, NY Philharmonic

When the New York Philharmonic reached out to Esa-Pekka Salonen several years ago to ask him to become an artistic partner, it was not, as many might assume, as a conductor. Rather, he was engaged as the Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-In-Residence, and over the past three seasons, the Phil has performed several of his works, both at Geffen Hall and at Williamsburg's National Sawdust, where he curated the CONTACT! new music concerts this past season.

But, it wasn't until the final few months of Salonen's tenure that he decided to take up his baton and conduct the Philharmonic himself. Unfortunately, I didn't make it to his subscription concerts in April, where he led the Phil in performances of Beethoven and a new work by Anna Thorvaldsdottir. But, I was there a week ago Friday for "Foreign Bodies": a one-off program which the Phil worked overtime to market in the media and on their various social media platforms as "groundbreaking" and "an interdisciplinary extravaganza."

Aside from the music, there was a photo booth filled with feathered masks and plastic horns (presumably for Instagrammers who like to look silly) and Broadway-style sippy cups so you could bring your Sauvignon Blanc (clear beverages only!) into the hall. Not really groundbreaking, but better than the usual.

“The concert experience has become predictable,” Salonen told the Times earlier this month,"and, visually, mostly dead boring...People are quite used to not only following narrative layers at the same time, but also expecting it."

All-in-all, the concert was thrown together in about four months - a flash in the classical world, where schedules are often booked 2-3 years in advance. Still, Salonen wasn't working completely from scratch: his Green Umbrella new music concerts at the LA Phil (where he worked closely with current NY Phil President Deborah Borda) provided a successful template to work from. 

Ny phil foreign bodies

(photo: Chris Lee)

Salonen recruited the Israeli video designer Tal Rosner to provide new visuals for his 2001 work Foreign Bodies. From my perspective, the abstract shapes floating across the screen looked like a digital update of Disney's Fantasia, using software to sync them in real time to the music, which was kinetic, visceral - and, for lack of a better word, Loud.

The same could be said for Salonen's Lachen verlernt (2002) and Nyx (2010), which were combined here into a new, atavistic ballet called Obsidian Tear by British choreographer Wayne McGregor (think: Rite of Spring.) It was performed by an all-male subset of the Boston Ballet, who danced on a stage extension in front of the Philharmonic bracketed at one end by an open pit, into which two dancers were ceremoniously cast.

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For me, the piece which sticks in my memory was the one which had no visuals at all: Daníel Bjarnason's Violin Concerto, commissioned last year by the LA Phil. The soloist, the gypsy-like Pekka Kuusisto, was mesmerizing, performing in a black smock that was more goth than concert glam. With its fierce sawing and extended whistling, Kuusisto gave a completely committed performance that was simply unforgettable. Later on that night, Kuusisto returned to perform an "encore" of extended improvisations in the hall, but by then it was already well past 11, and I was already halfway home. 

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