Is this guy the world's greatest living musician?  Probably.

Well-sung versions of "Si. Mi chiamano Mimi" aside, I've only been to two musical performances which brought me to the point where I found myself fighting back tears. The first was The Tristan Project- a multimedia, semi-staged version of Tristan und Isolde which I saw when it was revived at Disney Hall in 2007. At the conclusion of the first act, I sat there in my seat, completely blown away, demolished, really, fighting back tears and unable to speak to my date. I remember thinking to myself I'm not sure I'll be able to take two more acts of this. When I finally I did speak, after waiting to make sure I could do so without a sob in my throat, I said out loud to no one in particular, "How the fuck are they going to top that?" My girlfriend agreed, though she had only a minimal appreciation for Wagner at the time. Thankfully, the intermission gave me enough time to steel myself for the rest of it, and by the time the Liebestod unfurled a couple of hours later, I was ready.

The second time was yesterday (Sunday as I write this) in U.C. Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, listening to the closing minutes of the fourth movement of Mahler's 9th. After it was over, the feeling that if I spoke aloud I would lose it stayed with me for a good ten, possibly fifteen minutes after the performance. After I could no longer remain silent without seeming rude to my companion, I spoke, and found I still couldn't choke it back. How silly I thought I must have looked, but in hindsight I suppose it's better to be moved by such beauty than to be immune to it. To experience such things, rare as they are, is the reason we pursue art, isn't it?

Now the interesting thing to me is this- though the orchestras were different, the conductor for both of these performances, separated by five years and what feels like a lifetime to me, was Esa-Pekka Salonen.

I'm struggling to avoid hyperbole here, but after spending four consecutive nights listening to the results of the man's work, I can think of only a small handful of living musicians who may be Salonen's peers. It's one thing to create one's own dazzling, substantial body work and quite another to display a complete mastery of the works of others from the past two hundred years. Yet Salonen, over the course of four nights sponsored by Cal Performances, did just that. It's easy to name individuals who can do one or the other, but try naming musicians who can do both, and with such impressive results. I can only come up with one other name.

The first night, held in the smaller Hertz Hall, was a "Composer Portrait" dedicated to Salonen's own compositions, featuring four pieces of distinctly different character, all satisfying and exceptionally played. Salonen spoke at length with Cal Performances' Director Matias Tarnopolsky before cellist Kacy Clopton took the stage to perform knock, breathe, shine (2010), a three part solo work which starts off with unusual strains of jazz and rock woven into a pizzicato tapestry before the bow interrupts, as if answering the knock, then replaces the fingers as the means of expression, as if to answer "Who's there?" breathe possesses a plaintive tone that seems at once foreign yet familiar in its ability to transcend the boundaries of is commonly looked at as "classical music" (misnomer acknowledged), and shine is a bright and vigorous conclusion, during which Clopton used a number of playing techniques I've never seen to execute the piece, validating Salonen's comment that he seeks to challenge musicians while pleasing the audience with his compositions.

Next came the Calder Quartet, who stuck around town after performing a brilliant program of Nancarrow, Ades, and Bartok last Saturday night. They took the stage in their matching Beatle-esque suits (which prompted Isabella to exclaim how cute they were) to perform Homunculus (2007). Salonen describes the work as a miniature string quartet, containing everything usually found within the form's more traditional length, only smaller and more compressed, like the being referenced in the piece's title- a fully-formed, yet tiny little man inside of a single sperm cell (this was a very amusing description to hear, by the way). My favorite moment of this was when the Homunculus breaks free and takes its first tentative steps into a new existence. The Calders, over the course of their local performances this week, have proven themselves to be virtuosos of the highest caliber.

Salonen and Tarnopolsky chatted some more, and Salonen grew a bit rambunctious during this second exhange, exhibiting a wry sense of humor, especially with an anecdote about Mahler. Pianist Glora Cheng then performed Dichotomie (2000), a two-part work comprised of mechanical and organically inspired halves, which ends with the marvelous sensation of having a light extinguished and everything swallowed by darkness. The University's own Eco Ensemble, led by conductor David Milnes, performed Mania (2000), a chamber-sized cello concerto with Clopton as soloist. I didn't envy Milnes position here, conducting the work with Salonen seated in the audience, but the group pulled it off with aplomb, Clopton especially, who handled the almost ridiculous technical challenges (Salonen's titles aren't randomly selected) with consistent fluidity while the ensemble rocked repeating blasts of tripled notes which give way to icy, creepy slower parts.

The next three nights featured Salonen conducting London's Philharmonia Orchestra, of which he's been Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor since 2008. The first program began with his own Helix (2005)- a kind of Bolero-esque number which weaves two threads together for nine minutes of propulsive fun until they climax in an elongated, bright crescendo (Helix, Mania and Dichotomie have all been recorded, and a video featuring segments of knock, breathe, shine can be found here). He then led the orchestra through a rousing version of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 (1812) and a flawlessly delineated rendering of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique (1830). This particular Berlioz composition is one I've never warmed to, and though oddly enough I had some rather strange dreams paralleling its plot earlier during an afternoon nap that day, it left me more admiring of the execution than the work. My companion, however, who has experienced countless performances of it during her lifetime, was deeply impressed by it, as was a certain music critic seated directly in front of me who quite uncharacteristically bobbed and weaved to much of the music in obvious delight. However, the Beethoven enthralled me with its transparency and brilliant sense of pacing, which illuminated everything without once flagging during the slower sections, and maintained a sense of rhythmic vitality without ever feeling hurried during the fast ones. Of the half-dozen times I've heard it performed in concert, this was easily my favorite, in no small part due to the thrilling clarity of the Philharmonia's string section. There were two encores- a work of Boccherini's arranged into an elegant waltz by Berio called Ritarata, followed by the prelude to the third act of Lohengrin, which oddly enough was probably being played at the exact same time across the Bay in the War Memorial Opera House. Salonen introduced the latter by saying "How about some Wagner- quickly!" to the amusement of the thrilled house.

The second night featuring the Philharmonia was a semi-staged version of Berg's Wozzeck and of the four evenings this was the one I was looking forward to the most. An exceptional cast of singers was assembled, all of whom acted out their parts at the lip of the stage in front of the orchestra, with the chorus placed at the rear. The limitations of this kind of presentation can be severe but that wasn't the case here. Although the dread and unease which builds over the course of the opera in a typical staging was largely absent, the cast's consistent efforts brought forth most of the story's drama. Johan Reuter was magnificent in the title role, perfectly capturing his character's confusion and anguish. Angela Denoke's Marie, sung with piercing clarity came off with unexpected depth and nuance. As the Drum Major, Hubert Francis turned the secondary role into an equal of the guinea pig soldier and cuckolding common law wife with his combination of excellent tone and dominating stage presence. Peter Hoare and Joshua Ellicott were strong in the supporting roles of the Wozzeck's goon-like tormentors the Captain and Andres. Only Tijl Faveyts had difficulty making himself heard over the orchestra, though he had a commanding physical presence. Some of the children in the chorus of at the end were spookily spot-on, especially a little blond boy who spat out his lines in perfectly enunciated German and looked like a tyrannical homunculus of Dolph Lundgren.

However, all of these pluses notwithstanding, it was the music that made the performance something extraordinary. Each of the five scenes of the three acts were clearly articulated, and the quasi Rondo music for Marie and the Drum Major at the end of Act 1 was gorgeously played, transforming a work thought (erroneously) widely considered musically difficult to fathom musically into something quite clear. I'll admit to being slightly disappointed Salonen took a brief break between acts to sit for a moment and take a deep breath, but only because it stopped the momentum which he was constructing. Listening to the performance was like looking at a German Expressionist painting, (Otto Dix especially comes to mind)- one can't help but feel slightly repulsed by the subject matter but the attention to detail and the art of its construction it makes it something not easily turned away from. Salonen and the orchestra let the entire score breathe, the individual moments all came through distinctly, as they had the night before, unexpectedly turning Wozzeck into an extended symphonic delight, except of course when the orchestra pummels the audience with one of the loudest, most horrific moments in all of the operatic repertoire, which was a visceral thrill.

The next afternoon, Sunday, came the Mahler and I was surprised to see so many empty seats. Salonen took everything he'd already shown us he and this orchestra could do- masterful pacing, an almost incredible level of detail without any hint of fussiness, complete openness of expression within each section of the orchestra, and then essentially turned it all up to 11. If you missed it, it really was everything anyone who was actually there said it was, and easily one of the finest orchestral performances I've had the pleasure of attending- even if it did bring tears to my eyes.

Thankfully there was no encore, but Salonen returned to the stage an hour later to lead the UC Berkeley Orchestra through a master class in Debussy's La Mer. Working with the students for about an hour and a half, and only leaving because he had to get to the airport, Salonen, in this more relaxed atmosphere, (for him at least) proved that all the strengths exhibited in the previous four performances were no fluke. The students soared under his direction and keen observations.