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Esa-Pekka Salonen

Publisher: Chester Music

Violin Concerto (2009)
Commissioned by The Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and New York City Ballet
Chester Music Ltd
Soloists and Orchestra
Year Composed
30 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
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Programme Note
Esa-Pekka Salonen Violin Concerto (2009)
I wrote my Violin Concerto between June 2008 and March 2009. Nine months, the length of human gestation, a beautiful coincidence.

I decided to cover as wide a range of expression as I could imagine over the four movements of the Concerto: from the virtuosic and flashy to the aggressive and brutal, from the meditative and static to the nostalgic and autumnal. Leila Josefowicz turned out to be a fantastic partner in this process. She knows no limits, she knows no fear, and she was constantly encouraging me to go to places I was not sure I would dare to go. As a result of that process, this Concerto is as much a portrait of her as it is my more private narrative, a kind of summary of my experiences as a musician and a human being at the watershed age of 50.

Movement I
The violin starts alone, as if the music had been going on for some time already. Very light bell-like sounds comment on the virtuosic line here and there. Suddenly we zoom in to maximum magnification: the open strings of the violin continue their resonance, but amplified; the light playfulness has been replaced by an extreme close-up of the strings, now played by the cellos and basses; the sound is dark and resonant.

Zoom out again, and back in after a while. The third close-up leads into a recitative. Solo violin is playing an embellished melodic line that leads into some impossibly fast music. I zoom out once again at the very end, this time straight up in the air. The violin follows.
Finally all movement stops on the note D, which leads to…

Movement II
Pulse I
All is quiet, static. I imagined a room, silent: all you can hear is the heartbeat of the person next to you in bed, sound asleep. You cannot sleep, but there is no angst, just some gentle, diffuse thoughts on your mind. Finally the first rays of the sun can be seen through the curtains, here represented by the flutes.

Movement III
Pulse II
The pulse is no longer a heartbeat. This music is bizarre and urban, heavily leaning towards popular culture with traces of (synthetic) folk music. The violin is pushed to its very limits physically. Something very Californian in all this. Hooray for freedom of expression. And thank you, guys!

Movement IV
This is not a specific farewell to anything in particular. It is more related to the very basic process of nature, of something coming to an end and something new being born out of the old. Of course this music has a strong element of nostalgia, and some of the short outbursts of the full orchestra are almost violent, but I tried to illuminate the harmony from within. Not with big gestures, but with light.

When I had written the very last chord of the piece I felt confused: why does the last chord – and only that – sound completely different from all other harmony of the piece? As if it belonged to a different composition. Now I believe I have the answer. That chord is a beginning of something new.

— Esa-Pekka Salonen

Listening Guide: Esa-Pekka Salonen's Violin Concerto from Philharmonia Orchestra on Vimeo.

Click here to read an article about Esa-Pekka's "verse" as part of the iPad Air ad campaign

Score preview:

  • Ensemble
    Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
    Leila Josefowicz
    Esa-Pekka Salonen
    Deutsche Grammophon:
  • 27 FEB 2020
    Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, CA, USA
    San Francisco Symphony
    Leila Josefowicz, violin; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

    Other Dates:
    28 February - Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, CA, USA
    29 February - Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, CA, USA

It's an attention-grabbing and thought provoking work...Overall, it's an intriguing opus worth returning to.
Colin Anderson,,27/03/2014
Written in four unconventionally structured movements, the concerto explores, as Mr. Salonen has said, the widest range of expression and instrumental resources of the violin. The first movement, “Mirage,” begins with the violin alone playing what sounds like a near-obsessive modern-day toccata, all streams of winding, perpetual-motion fast notes. Soon, the orchestra responds, jumping in, or perhaps nudging the violin, with fluttering, pungent chords and astringent harmonies. The back and forth becomes fierce, culminating in a hyper-fast outburst for violin, until the instrument takes refuge, in a way, floating eerie lines in soft high notes. I defer to Mr. Salonen’s apt description of the subdued second movement, “Pulse I,” which, he writes, is like a room in which all you hear is the “heartbeat of the person next to you in bed” as your mind is occupied by “gentle, diffuse thoughts.” There is a little restlessness in that heartbeat, though, mostly played by the timpani. And the dreamy solo violin is not entirely comfortable in this pensive mode. Sure enough, the raw “Pulse II” movement changes everything. In a long, final “Adieu,” the violin plays murmuring musings over hazy, cosmic harmonies. It would be hard to imagine a more compelling and accomplished performance, both from Ms. Josefowicz and the inspired Philharmonic.
Anthony Tommasini, New York Times,31/10/2013
the heart of the evening’s first half was Salonen’s own engrossing Violin Concerto, completed in 2009. Like the composer, the piece is a fascinating hybrid, a combination of European modernist rigor and polyglot Californian cool. It has four connected movements of hugely diverse character, loosely knit together by a demanding solo line that embraces traditional virtuoso violin writing while never feeling captive to it. The opening is a sustained sprint for the soloist, the second movement a more languid span with the timpani heartbeat of the Beethoven Violin Concerto underlying hazy woodwind lines as the violin beautifully drifts above, almost lost in thought. The third movement is a wild blitz of energy, lurching, syncopated, viscerally alive. A drum kit seemed to appear out of nowhere. It is a modernist block party. The last movement, titled “Adieu,’’ pulls back with a more questing tone. Interlocking upward scales run like bubbles to a surface. The brasses churn darkly. Salonen’s control of timbre here is remarkable. Thursday night, violin soloist Leila Josefowicz, playing from memory, gave it a winning, physically charged performance.
Jeremy Eichler, Boston Globe,13/04/2012
...Salonen offered a big new work of his own: the Violin Concerto, written for the fearless young virtuoso Leila Josefowicz. When Salonen announced that he was giving up the Los Angeles job, he said that he wanted to devote more time to composing, and the strength of his latest pieces suggests that he has not made a foolish choice. (His other conducting gig, at the Philharmonia Orchestra, in London, takes less of his time.) Salonen the composer is more openly expressive than Salonen the conductor...
Alex Ross, The New Yorker,27/04/2009
In a program note about his new Violin concerto, a 30-minute work for in four movements, he writes that it is in some ways a "summary of my experiances as a musician and a human being at the watershed age of 50." If that sounds like a big agenda for one piece, the concerto comes across as a rhapsodic, inspired and restless work, too immediate to weigh down listeners with philosophical musings.
Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times,11/04/2009
Thursday night in Walt Disney Concert Hall, Salonen premiered his Violin Concerto, and it is pure, euphoric poetry with a singular sound and voice.
Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times,10/04/2009
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