Esa-Pekka Salonen: Wing on Wing (2003–2004)

Composed: 2003–2004
Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 piccolos (1st = flute; 2nd = flute, alto flute), 2 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bell plates, bongos, congas, cowbells, crotales, glockenspiel, log drums, metal chimes, sandpaper blocks, sizzle cymbal, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, tom-toms, triangles, tubular bells, tuned gongs, vibraphone, wind machine), 2 harps, MIDI keyboard, celesta, strings, and 2 sopranos

In 1822 Beethoven composed an overture, Die Weihe des Hauses (‘The Consecration of the House’) op. 124, for the opening of the new theatre in Josefstadt. In 1971 the Finnish composer Joonas Kokkonen wrote an overture, Inauguratio, intended to be performed at the inaugural ceremony of Helsinki’s Finlandia Hall. To mention that hall, in this context, is not completely out of place since it was there, in 1979, that Esa-Pekka Salonen, for the first time in his life, stood in front of a professional symphony orchestra. A quarter of a century later, in Los Angeles, he was in a position to write an homage to a concert hall (“an extraordinary building by an extraordinary man”) in the making of which he was personally involved.

New concert halls deserve new music, for they are both expressions of the spirit of their time. Often, and for a good reason, inaugural music is an overture, as in the two above-mentioned cases. In some other cases, e.g. if the house is not a concert hall or if something else, such as a festival, is being opened, it also can be a fanfare. Before Wing on Wing Salonen has composed one other inaugural piece that was a fanfare. He wrote it for the first Suvisoitto (’Summer Sounds’) festival in Porvoo, Finland, in 1986. In this two-and-a-half minute piece, scored for a small ensemble of woodwind and brass players, the contrabass clarinet had a prominent role. When I heard Wing on Wing for the first time, I had a déjà vu (or actually a déjà entendu) experience: there it is, in the first five bars of the piece already, murmuring together with cousin contrabassoon in the midst of lush string harmonies.

Wing on Wing is neither a fanfare nor an overture. It cannot be easily assigned to any other established category of orchestral music either. The instrumentation is very peculiar. Add two high sopranos void of text and some sampled speech to a large symphony orchestra and mix. Does it make a cantata? Not quite. But it evokes rich associations with earlier music by Debussy, Sibelius, Berio, Stockhausen, Saariaho, Lindberg, Salonen and others, in which human voice has been used in a variety of ways. A lot of other musical images cross the mind, too. Maritime associations, fauxbourdon technique, and some scales, such as the octatonic scale with alternating whole tones and semitones, strongly point towards the French connection (Debussy, Messiaen). Introducing Porichthys notatus (Plainfin Midshipman) in the ‘Cadenza’ adds a new paragraph, next to George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae, to the fish chapter of zoomusicology. Long pedal points, violin tremolos and sudden brass chords in the section immediately following the ‘Cadenza’ strongly evoke Sibelius, as do, on the other hand, the ‘storm’ sections. There are few pieces in recent orchestral music that conduct a dialogue with the music of the 20th century on so many levels at the same time as Wing on Wing.

Formally Wing on Wing is something that comes close to a symphonic fantasy. In his own program notes, Esa-Pekka Salonen dissects its form in ten sections. In a more synoptic view one could say that it consists of four movements: Introduction, Scherzo I, Slow movement with Cadenza, and Finale (Scherzo II) with Coda (Stretto).

(LAPHIL PRESENTS, October 2007, pp. 44–45)

About Ilkka Oramo

Professor of Music Theory, emeritus
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