In his Second Symphony (originally called Symphonic Dialogue for Solo Percussion Player and Orchestra) Sallinen further explores the dramatic gifts he so strongly demonstrated in the organ Chaconne, Chorali and the First Symphony. Unleashing and the controlling of essentially untameable forces is, for Sallinen, a major musical concern. In the Second Symphony, the musical dialogue and ensuing battle is set in motion by a defiantly stated descending scale (strings, vibraphone). Over-pinning this scale is a pedal point (sustained woodwinds). The pattern is capped by a snarl produced by a slit gourd (a guiro). A persistent rising motto (notes grouped in threes) tries to take the dialogue in a contrary direction. Brass enter the array, then march forward, only to be surmounted by the relentless thrust of the battery of percussion. This offensive soon brings the work to a standstill.
A new tempo, più tranquillo, is established. Gradually, the ascending motto of three notes turns into an eerie waltz; this is overpowered by encroaching percussion and brass. The listener, conscious of the demonic wit behind the percussion writing, now realizes that the joker's mask has been dispensed with altogether. A passage of terrifying aggression is unleashed. Yet out of this apparent mayhem surges a glorious cantabile theme on strings. Almost at once it is beaten into submission. A fanfare for three trumpets does not ease this new sense of menace. Near the end, divided violas play sul ponticello, as if a distant warning siren were being given. In early performances of this work, the percussionist would then embark on a short cadenza. An uncompromizing sense of conflict has been transformed into a feeling of muffled tension, exquisitely poised.
© Ronald Weitzman