• Esa-Pekka Salonen
  • Sinfonia concertante for organ and orchestra (2022)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Co-commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra of the Polish Radio Katowice, Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris, Los Angeles Philharmonic and Elbphilharmonie Hamburg

  • org + 3(2pic).3(III:ca).2+bcl.2+cbn/
  • Organ
  • 30 min
    • 16th October 2024, Maison symphonique, Montreal, QC, Canada
    • 19th October 2024, Maison symphonique, Montreal, QC, Canada
    View all

Programme Note

I started developing material for the Sinfonia concertante in the lockdown spring of 2020. It took me a while to get over the first, obvious hurdle: the organ can cover the entire scope of a symphony orchestra in every way. It has the same or wider pitch, dynamics and colour ranges. How does one write a piece for essentially two orchestras without creating redundancy issues?

After a lot of thinking and at times agonising, I had the Columbus's egg moment: why not just write the music, and orchestrate it for those two rich and complex instruments, the organ and the orchestra?

I decided to call the composition Sinfonia concertante instead of Concerto, as the function of the organ keeps changing constantly over the course of the 30-minute journey. Sometimes it plays alone, often as the soloist in the traditional sense, or as a chamber-music partner to wind instruments. A few times it becomes part of the orchestra as a member of the collective in a supporting role. I cannot think of any other instrument with the same chameleon-like flexibility.

The long history of the organ inspired me to imagine “old” music from a hypothetical world, an alternate universe, still mine but slightly alien. I decided to use old forms, such as the slow, courtly Pavane in the first movement. There is only one actual quote in the Sinfonia Concertante: the famous art antiqua four-part Organa, Viderunt omnes by Pérotin (fl. c. 1200), which I re-harmonised and orchestrated for full orchestra and the solo organ. (I have been a Pérotin fan since my teen years.)

Here’s a short map of the three movements.

Movement 1: Pavane and Drones

  1. After a dreamy opening section, the solo organ introduces the Pavane, my take on the stately Renaissance court dance. The strings join after a while, the organ decorates their phrase.
  2. A semitone trill drone sounds throughout the new, more unsettled section where the filigree lines of the organ are sometimes accompanied by the woodwind instruments. The Pavane returns in a different guise in the bassoons and later in the horns. The semitone trill has grown to a whole tone, which in my mind grew into a major dramaturgical moment, a real peripeteia.
  3. After another filigree solo passage the Pavane returns suddenly, this time forte, played by the full orchestra. After a massive culmination, the unsettled organ filigree is heard for the last time.
  4. The dreamy opening music returns, orchestrated very sparingly. The organ plays the melodic line, accompanied by long glissandos of two solo violins. The movement ends in stillness.

Movement 2: Variations and Dirge

  1. Solo viola and the English horn play a slow, nostalgic melody, accompanied by quiet, calmly ascending and descending lines. Those scales will be returning soon.
  2. The organ plays the first Cadenza. It begins like an innocuous baroque Siciliano, but grows more frenzied in expression as it progresses.
  3. A short variation of the up-and-down movement heard in the beginning. This time at breakneck speed.
  4. The second Cadenza. The Siciliano music is now in the pedal, low and powerful.
  5. The third variation of the scales: a long Adagio, which culminates when the unisono strings reach the highest point of the melody.
  6. A Dirge for the organ alone. My mother died during the last stages of the composition process. I decided to write an epilogue in her memory. It doesn’t sound sad, more like a big ship sailing away.

Movement 3: Ghost Montage

  1. Noisy music inspired by the organ riffs heard in NHL ice hockey games in the USA. Echoes of Beethoven’s Seventh also, I believe.
  2. Old music from my imagined world, played by woodwinds mostly.
  3. The organ joins, and we hear a quieter variation of the opening carnival music, this time with pizzicato strings.
  4. Long solo episode for the organ. The complex chords in the beginning give way to another version of the “old” music.
  5. The carnival returns, this time intertwined with the “old” music.
  6. Another long organ solo, which leads to the Pérotin sequence.
  7. A sudden, loud tutti leads to the first Cadenza. Massive chords over a pedal point on B-natural.
  8. Another tutti outburst and a second Cadenza, this time a virtuoso moment for the pedal.
  9. The opening music returns, faster than before. The organ and the orchestra have changed places, the organ plays what the orchestra played earlier and vice versa. Out of the massive B-flat major chord emerges another, alien chord that ends the entire piece, pianissimo. Another ghost.

– Esa-Pekka Salonen
Katowice, Jan 11, 2023




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