Dancing about architecture

Esa-Pekka Salonen. ()
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The George Balanchine works that form the nucleus of New York City Ballet’s repertory are defined by their music. No one who sees “Concerto Barocco” will ever again be able to listen to Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in the same way. And while that work’s title refers to the music, many of his other ballets are named even more simply, with the title of the pieces to which they’re set: masterpieces like “Liebeslieder Walzer” (with music by Brahms), “Scotch Symphony” (set to Mendelssohn), and the glorious “Stravinsky Violin Concerto.”

That last piece has been a part of City Ballet’s season this spring, and it’s of special interest as the company prepares to bring a new violin concerto into the repertory. “Mirage,” set to music by Esa-Pekka Salonen and choreographed by the company’s ballet master-in-chief, Peter Martins, opens tonight and is the final installment in City Ballet’s “Architecture of Dance” festival, which has featured a series of world premiere dances set to new music, with set designs by the renowned architect Santiago Calatrava.

The festival has had its ups and downs—Melissa Barak’s story ballet about Bugsy Siegel was a dud, with a dull light-jazz score by Jay Greenberg and a nondescript palm-tree set by Calatrava—but Salonen and Martins’ collaboration is by far the highlight. Like Martins’ several ballets to music by John Adams (including Adams’ own violin concerto), it hearkens back to City Ballet’s glory days, when Balanchine premieres were multisensory experiences that exposed audiences to Stravinsky’s astringently beautiful scores.

Salonen is well known as a composer, but it’s as a conductor that he’s best known to American audiences; his seventeen years as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic are already legendary. He’ll be conducting the peformances at City Ballet—a rarity for the company—as he did at the work’s premiere in Los Angeles in April 2009, and the soloist will once again be Leila Josefowicz.

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It’s not an unfamiliar role for Salonen. The composer’s first conducting gig, in fact, was as a ballet conductor in his native Finland. It was after many iterations of Giselle—not the most exciting of scores—that things began to go south. “I had to give this music some variation,” said Salonen in a phone interview from London, “and I started speeding it up here and slowing it there. But, of course, for the dancers onstage this was a total disaster because here was this madman in the pit making their life miserable.” He was fired a few weeks later.

Now he’s back on the ballet podium, if somewhat unexpectedly. “The genesis of the violin concerto was somewhat unusual,” he said, “because I originally had no idea it would end up being a ballet as well.” When Peter Martins originally approached the composer about commissioning a ballet score, Salonen’s schedule was too tight to allow for a wholly new composition. The violin concerto—which he was working on anyway—became coopted for the purpose.

“At first I thought it was a very strange idea that an instrumental concerto would be a ballet as well,” he said, “but then he reminded me of some of the legendary pieces in the repertory, i.e. the Stravinsky Violin Concerto. I’d completely forgotten all about it.”

The concerto is in four movements which alternate tempi: fast-slow-fast-slow. The opening, “Mirage,” is followed by two “Pulses” (the second of which has what Salonen calls “sort of a disco beat almost”), and a closing “Adieu.” Leila Josefowicz, the violin soloist, interprets the elegiac finale as having a very personal meaning for Salonen. “It’s a sweeping emotional movement,” she said in a phone interview from her home in New York. “A lot of it was about his life. He turned 50, he was leaving the Los Angeles Philharmonic, starting a new life with his family in London. In certain ways it was the beginning of a new chapter of life.”

The new chapter hasn’t always been easy. Adjusting to being back in Europe was much more difficult than Salonen had expected. But he’s relieved that the L.A. Philharmonic is doing well under its new director, Gustavo Dudamel, whom he called a “mega-success.” And Salonen been happy with his new band, the Philharmonia Orchestra, and he’s much closer to his ideal work balance: six months of conducting a year and six months of composing. He’s doing more opera than he was able to do in Los Angeles, a limitation that was largely logistical. “L.A.’s a great place,” he said, “but it’s far away from almost any other place, and doing opera means weeks and weeks in another city.”

Not every piece is easy to compose, Salonen said, but “the violin concerto was born under a happy star.” He added, “It’s not what dance music should be, very sort of rhythmic and angular and music with an even pulse. But when I think of the great works of Balanchine and other great choreographers, like Béjart and Pina Bausch, I realize the equation is much more complex and the relation between music and movement is much richer and deeper than just dancers making movements according to certain pulses.”