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In a rare Philadelphia Orchestra appearance, Esa-Pekka Salonen shows why we should have him back more often

The conductor leads an intriguing quartet of works in the final original installment of the orchestra's Digital Stage season.

Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Philadelphia Orchestra with pianist Yefim Bronfman in a Digital Stage presentation of the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2 filmed in Verizon Hall.
Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Philadelphia Orchestra with pianist Yefim Bronfman in a Digital Stage presentation of the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2 filmed in Verizon Hall.Read morePhiladelphia Orchestra Digital Stage

Slumped over your laptop with the sound funneled through a speaker is no way to experience Sibelius’ short but panoramic Symphony No. 7. And for a small, fortunate audience of Philadelphia Orchestra donors and friends who got to hear it live early last month in Verizon Hall, the piece reportedly came across as magnificent.

The rest of us are getting to hear that performance on this week’s Digital Stage series, and digital is better than nothing. With a rare appearance by conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, this last original online program of the orchestra season is also one of the best.

Accompanying commentary attempts to draw a line among the works on the program — by Berio, Liszt, Sibelius, and Salonen himself — but really, these are four statements so strong they need no justification.

Strength, though, didn’t always come in the expected form. Yefim Bronfman is known for his might, and he is mighty enough in the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2. But was he always so elegant? Here, his commanding technique is in the service of fluidity — so beautifully flowing it’s like a real-time portrayal of liberation.

In that passage where his left hand and the lower strings of the orchestra are going back and forth as if arguing, not a nanosecond of a beat is lost by either pianist or ensemble. Bronfman’s playing has an absolute on-top-of-the-beat edge that is exhilarating.

That same immediacy is in abundance elsewhere. Salonen leads what might be Luciano Berio’s merriest piece, the Four Original Versions of Luigi Boccherini’s The Night Retreat of Madrid. Think of the work like this. You’re in a town square when you hear music approaching in the distance. It’s a march, but a friendly and noble one, and soon you’re enveloped in euphoric sound. The tune emphasizes different instruments each time it repeats, varying the character of the music. And soon the musicians are marching off into the distance again.

Salonen places the piece as the opener, where it has great charm, though the orchestra should keep it in its vest pocket as an encore.

The Finnish-born Salonen — conductor laureate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and current music director of the San Francisco Symphony — has guest conducted the Philadelphians only three times before (in 1986, 2012, and 2019), and he’s been an artistic shot of adrenaline each time.

He once brought along his own Violin Concerto, and this time it is his Stockholm Diary for strings. Written in grays and blacks, with passing sections of varied woven textures, the work has some interesting string writing (especially for the double basses) and conveys a dark, crushing intensity.

Was it the conductor’s intention to match intensities by putting it before Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7? Nothing compares to this one-movement work, especially played by an orchestra that has long had something special to say about Sibelius. So, too, Salonen.

“Grand and sweeping, full of drama and smart in its pacing, Salonen’s reading of his fellow countryman’s piece stirred real excitement,” wrote an Inquirer critic of Salonen’s Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 at his Philadelphia Orchestra debut in 1986 at age 28.

Now 63, Salonen brings exactly the same qualities to the Symphony No. 7. What strikes me, too, about him is the finesse with which he weaves together the parts — each distinct in mood, each highly detailed, but smoothly connected at critical junctures.

Salonen has another key quality that’s solid gold. He thinks of the orchestra as a single voice; he even refers to it as an instrument in comments to the audience. Not every ear is sensitive to Philadelphia’s incredible tradition of blended sound and homogeneity. Here is one. Let’s hope the quickening pace of his visits keeps up.

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s program of works by Berio, Liszt, Salonen, and Sibelius streams Aug. 5 at 8 p.m. through Aug. 12 at 11 p.m. Tickets are $15 or $17.