Birds, these enchanting and fearsome magical dinosaurs, have two distinct superpowers that fascinate humans: they can sing and they can fly. A composer who wants to celebrate them in music is probably wise to focus on just one of these angles.
For his beautifully vibrant concert with the San Francisco Symphony on Friday, October 15, musical director Esa-Pekka Salonen released a pair of complementary works that, together, explored these two talents of our feathered friends. First there was “Exotic Birds” (“Exotic Birds”), Olivier Messiaen’s resounding evocation of 1956 of birdsong from around the world, and after the intermission came “Dream Wing” ( “Aile du rêve”), a magnificent and fluid concerto for flute from 2001 by Kaija Saariaho.
Even if you weren’t a big bird lover before, it was music designed to change your mind.
Saariaho’s 20-minute creation, inspired by the French poet Saint-John Perse, is like a sumptuous aerial sound ballet. There are also bird songs – the soloist is sometimes called upon to vocalize or whistle in or around the flute – but most of the time the listener is amazed as the music spins and passes overhead. .
This is music perfectly suited to the sinuous, kinetic approach of flutist Claire Chase, one of the eight collaborative partners Salonen has brought together to help her rethink the artistic direction of the orchestra. In Friday’s dazzling performance at Davies Symphony Hall, which marked the play’s first symphonic performance, Chase unleashed melodic lines that fluttered and twirled in alluring flourishes. Perhaps equally impressive, she delivered the vocal explosions of the score in such a way that they sound like natural components of the language, without artifice or embarrassment.
Saariaho accompanies these efforts with a shimmering orchestral texture of strings and percussion, built on a solid rhythmic foundation. In a long section, based on a folk tale, a bird teaches the people of a village a dance lesson, and the music arrives briefly and seductively on Earth.
If Saariaho’s celestial landscape is a dreamlike and ever-changing affair, Messiaen’s work, written for a range of woodwinds, percussion and a solo piano part calling for extreme virtuosity, unfolds in large, well-defined angular movements. Birdsong is omnipresent in Messiaen’s music; it is one of the things that most faithfully defines his style of composition. But “Exotic Birds” is a particularly strident and lively squawkfest.
Jeremy Denk walked through the solo part with thrilling confidence, and Salonen superbly led the orchestra through the nervous and jerky cacophony of the score. The long series of jackhammer chords that the piece ends with turned out as an exhilarating group reminder for the entire avian cast.
But while the two more recent pieces provided most of the immediate rewards of the concert, there was also the joy of hearing how much Salonen and the orchestra worked together in the two familiar Debussy works that framed the evening. . “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” kicked off the program off to an elegant and seductive start, with flautist Lorna McGhee, principal of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, stepping in to deliver a gracious account of the solos by foreground.
Working on the larger canvas of ‘The Sea’, Salonen and the musicians collaborated to create a picturesque but muscular evocation of the sea, imposing in its vast chord effects and full of fine detail. It was the fusion of standard and adventurous music as it should be.
San Francisco Symphony: 7:30 p.m. Saturday October 16; 2 p.m. Sunday, October 17. $ 20 to $ 165. Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Avenue, SF 415-864-6000. www.sfsymphony.org