K. Saariaho, Orion (inter alia), Orchestre de Paris, C. Eschenbach
Sibelius / M. Lindberg, Violin Concertos, L. Batiashvili, Finnish RSO, S. Oramo
Sibelius, Complete Symphonies, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, L. Segerstam
The first half concluded with the NSO's first performance of Magnus Lindberg's recent violin concerto, from 2006. It would have been all too easy to program the Sibelius violin concerto for this kind of concert, but Eschenbach chose instead to highlight one of Finland's most successful living composers. In my review of the recording of the Lindberg concerto, with its dedicatee, Lisa Batiashvili, as soloist, I asked, "Which brave conductor and orchestra will bring her to the Washington region to play this enigmatic and spectrally beautiful piece?" My wish almost came true, although the soloist here was Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, who brought a brash, garrulous touch to the demanding violin part, but not the same purity on all the high E string writing as Batiashvili. Kuusisto tended more to growl than float, and his intonation was not always where it should have been. Neither was the NSO always on top of the piece, although there were some beautifully lush moments in the slow sections. Kuusisto took a folk music-like approach to the solo, stamping his feet and bending and twisting the tone, a connection that was made further in his choice of encore, a Finnish folk dance ("Devil's Polska") transcribed by Samuel Rinda-Nickola (1763-1818), which was a rollicking good time. Kuusisto offered it proudly in honor of Kalevala Day (February 28), the annual day of Finnish culture.
The other NSO debut was Orion, a three-movement tone poem (not quite long enough perhaps to be a symphony) by Kaija Saariaho, who was just in town last week and whose music Eschenbach championed while music director of the Orchestre de Paris. Hynotic, oscillating patterns, with crinkles of percussion, especially the shamanistic shiver of shell chimes, set the mythological tone in the first movement ("Memento mori"), with Eschenbach helping to shape the murmuring mass of sound, string glissandi and other soft colors, a turbulent texture that exploded in cacophony. The second movement began with a lovely, folk-inflected piccolo solo, echoed by microtonal bends downward in a recurring wind motif, followed by a treble piano ostinato like a music box. Orion's earth-depleting hunt is depicted in the third movement, active squalls of sound (bird squeal of piccolo, animal baying of the horns) punctuated by halos of starlight in soft interludes.
Robert Battey, NSO struggles with cold material from Finland (Washington Post, March 1)
This program repeats tonight and tomorrow night (March 1 and 2, 8 pm) in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.