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By Grant Hiroshima

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Dichotomie (2000)

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Dichotomie .[…] bears a dedication: “for Gloria.” The Gloria referred to is Gloria Cheng, known to Los Angeles concert-goers for her many appearances and collaborations with Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, most particularly with its Green Umbrella New Music Group. Cheng says the piece “developed out of a casual backstage conversation.”

Salonen confirms this when he writes that “Dichotomie was originally intended to become a short encore type of piece. I wanted to write a surprise new work for Glorai Cheng for a concert dedicated to my music in Los Angeles in January 2000. I soon realized that the material I had invented had a tendency to grow into two very different kinds of music. It became obvious that this was going be a longer piece in two movements as the material seemed to have that sort of genetic code.”

Later that year, the first movement of the piece was presented to Cheng. “This was the gift of friend. I was honored and thrilled to have this given to me. I have commissioned pieces before, of course, but this was different and such a surprise. After the first performance in December of 2000 of the completed work, Salonen, after discussing the technical challenges of the piece with Cheng, made some revisions which, according to the pianist, “enhanced some of the frenzied side.”

And there is abundant frenzy, to be sure. Salonen writes: “The first movement, Mécanisme, is indeed like a machine, but not a perfect one: more like one of the Tingely sculptures (or mobiles, they really defy all attempts to categorize them), which are very active, extroverted, and expressive, but produce nothing concrete. I imagined a machine that could feel some sort of joie de vivre, and in that process, i.e., becoming human, would lose its cold precision.”

Cheng adds, “I find that this machine also has some unwittingly brilliant ideas and, when no one is looking, will really rock.” Mécanisme can, after all, mean both machine and technique in French, and the virtuoso mixes of frenetic rhythmic passages, theatrical glissandos, and two-fisted driving energy demonstrate this. We will hear this genotypical marker again in the second half of the program.

After the premiere, Cheng and now [Yefim] Bronfman have been presenting Dichotomie to audiences around the world. “I remember when Fima (Bronfman) first took it up,” says Cheng. “He spoke to me about some passages and asked me just how it was I did it.” In the case of the potentially painful black key glissandos of the first movement, her solution was playing with fingerless gloves (red) and using the palms of her hands!

Salonen describes the second movement: “Organisme, the second movement, behaves very differently. Again, the music is busy on the surface, but breathes a lot slower and deeper. The music is completely continuous, all different sections grow into each other organically. A metaphor I had in mind was indeed a tree, not a huge one, more like a slender willow, that moves gracefully in the wind but returns always to its original shape and position.”

When learning Dichotomie, Cheng says she could hear echoes of Stravinsky’s Petrushka and a hint of the ravelian from time to time, the heritage of the virtuoso piano tradition, as well as the friendly presences of Salonen’s contemporaries such as John Adams or Magnus Lindberg – but finally, “what is entirely Esa-Pekka is the wit and the whimsy, and the ability to move from an in-your-face extroversion to a delicate lushness and intimacy, while never sacrificing his sense of humor. It tells you a lot about the person he is away from the podium. The more I get to know his music, the more I come to believe that he must have been a tremendously unruly child!” She is quick to add that if anyone else were to ask her for tips on preparing Dichotomie for performance she would say “upper body exercises, highly recommended.”