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Too Few Witness Sibelius Greatness

available at Amazon
J.Sibelius, Violin Concerto
(org. & rev. versions)
L.Kavakos / O.Vänskä / Lahti SO

Thursday night Osmo Vänskä opened his run of concerts with the NSO to an appallingly small crowd in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall – all the more surprising given the quality of the program and the great success that had been Vänskä’s last stint in D.C. two years ago. On paper, the combination of the current Minnesota Orchestra Music Director, soloist Leonidas Kavakos, and a double dose of Sibelius should appear one of the absolute highlights of the season. At least to all the “finer ears.” That there should not even be two thousand music lovers in the Washington region that would not miss this musical opportunity is sad, if telling. Perhaps Friday (7PM) or Saturday (8PM) will see a more appropriate response to this offering, especially since it delivered everything it promised – and more.

The opening string suite by Sibelius, Rakastava (The Lover) op.14 (originally a work for male choir) brought out the best in the NSO string section I have heard in a long, long time. Discipline, delicacy, detail, and coherence were evident everywhere; dynamic changes from pp to mf sounded like they came at the flick of a switch. The work itself is hushed and whispered here, a fragile dance there, silver-threaded, and with wistful pathos – audibly related to the Karelia Suite from around the same time.

Kalevi AhoKalevi Aho’s Symphonic Dances: Hommage à Uuno Klami came to be as Aho’s attempt to create the missing third act to Uuno Klami’s (1900 – 1961) ballet Pyörteitä (Whirls). Nothing ever came of the plan to perform the complete work, reconstructed and refinished, so Aho took that third act in four parts out of context and successfully established it as a large orchestral piece easily able to stand on its own. It is an extraordinary work, by all means: Extraordinarily busy and hectic, especially in the “Prelude” where the percussion section dominates everything. Underneath the musical hoopla runs an ever-returning, calmer undercurrent. It’s a crooked brook of sound; lively and unpredictably running along in dainty fashion only to break out into martial clashes the next moment and then returning to a distant, exotic calm.

Leonidas Kavakos, Photo by Yannis BourniasFive minutes into it, the ears overcome initial disorientation and get into the groove, almost jazzy in its rhythmical jauntiness. A great clash ends “Return of the Flames and Dance,” while “Grotesque Dance” features lazy snarls and growls – like smudgy little animals awaking from hibernation and shaking winter off. The tuba plods around the dark and the timpanist gets a workout before “Dance of the Winds and Fires” wanders outside (evocative wind noises created by a synthesizer) and steers to a broad and continuous climax only to fall into silence and wither away over the violins’ and cellos’ shudders. The work may have puzzled audience members – and resulted in timid, but unusually prolonged and continuous applause. Not the least the orchestra deserved it, having played with rarely encountered vigor and alertness.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Finnish Sounds Suit NSO Well (Washington Post, March 9)

Charles T. Downey, DCist Goes to the Symphony (DCist, March 12)

Having survived the 21st-century composition the audience rightfully expected the highlight of the night and was, Aho’s wonderfully curious composition notwithstanding, proven correct. Leonidas Kavakos’ way with the Sibelius concerto is something very special to behold. If not of immaculate intonation on Thursday night, his full tone, his notes that seem to have neither a set beginning nor end, his effortless, even tone and burnished sound were present throughout. ‘Dignified frenzy’ might sound oxymoronic on paper but made sense listening to his finale of the first movement. Inner and serene calm pervaded the Adagio molto, while the last movement, Allegro ma non tanto a dark, viola-like edge in the opening before culminating in the finale that came across as (another dubious phrase) furious yet linear. The NSO earned its stripes digging into the score and coming up with detail, nuance, and clarity like they rarely do – and in quite a different way than when last heard in that concerto, then conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

For anyone with an interest in music in this town, attendance of one of the remaining, self-recommending performances should be considered mandatory.