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Hannu Lintu Returns to the NSO

We found Hannu Lintu's recent engagements in the area, with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2010 and the National Symphony Orchestra in 2009, to be exciting listening. The Finnish conductor, who will become principal conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2013, gave the same kind of edgy leadership with the NSO last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, a pairing of two transcendental works, albeit transcendental in rather different ways. On the first half, it was the NSO premiere of Steven Mackey's violin concerto Beautiful Passing, created for Leila Josefowicz in 2008. As the composer put it (see the program notes), "The governing metaphor of the work has to do with the violin gaining control of its own destiny, competing with, commanding and ultimately letting go of the orchestra. This metaphor arises from my experience, during the composition of the piece, watching my mother gain control of her destiny to the point of predicting the day she would let go, predicting the day of her death. Her last words to me, a few hours before she died, were 'Please tell everyone I had a beautiful passing'."

Josefowicz, a dynamic and alluring musician, returned to the NSO to play the work that she helped create, giving a smooth grace to the solo's self-absorbed monologue. At first oblivious to the solo's fragile beauty, the orchestra crashed about heedlessly, in a crazy-burlesque, percussion-clatter expression of the world's chaos, as Josefowicz put it in pithy comments to the audience before the performance, even noting that one of the more prominent motifs heard in that chaotic music was the mechanical song of New Jersey Transit ticket machines. The performance was moving and graceful, without being lachrymose, even at the moment of the central violin cadenza, where there is a dissonant repeated motif that Josefowicz identified with the "labored breathing" of Mackey's mother's final moments. Josefowicz, who played the work from memory, was a marvel, imbuing even the scratchy passages and anxious harmonics with grace and calm, down to the final bars, which evoked the sound of a heart monitor reading a flat line. Lintu seemed on top of the score and gave incisive gestures to shape the music, often confusing in its shifting meters.

available at Amazon
Sibelius, Symphonies (plus Violin Concerto, Tone Poems), Philharmonia Orchestra, V. Ashkenazy
Other than the over-played violin concerto, we take a fix for our Sibelius obsession when we can -- the 2nd symphony with the NSO in 2010, the 5th with the San Francisco Symphony in 2009, the 4th with the London Symphony Orchestra in 2008, the 7th with the BSO and the 1st and 7th with the NSO in the same year. Lintu's hand at Sibelius having proven quite sure, it was a pleasure to hear him conduct the overwhelming fifth symphony, a work that the Finnish composer described, as quoted by Andrew Barnett in his valuable book Sibelius, in transcendental terms: "God opens his door for a moment, and his orchestra is playing the Fifth Symphony." Lintu brought out many pleasing details in the score, creating a build-up of tension in the first movement, an uneasiness that continued to roil under the surface in the lovely soft passage for bassoon solo.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Conductor Hannu Lintu, violinist Leila Josefowicz shine in NSO show (Washington Post, January 13)

Emily Cary, Leila Josefowicz to perform in 'Beautiful Passing' (Washington Examiner, January 10)

David Mermelstein, Violinist Leila Josefowicz to play ‘Beautiful Passing’ with NSO (Washington Post, January 8)
The second movement had a bucolic quality, piping with all sorts of life, at a tempo that had a definite sense of motion, transforming into an ebullient, folk-tinged dance. The third movement quivered in agitation, kept in that state by Lintu's driving gestures until each appearance of the grand, mysterious Swan Theme, which slowed the pace as eyes moved to the heavens to watch the wheeling of the swans above. The reference was made by Sibelius in a letter, describing sixteen swans that circled over him, calling out to him. "One of the greatest experiences of my life," he later wrote. "Oh God, what beauty! They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the hazy sun like a glittering, silver ribbon. Their cries were of the same woodwind timbre as those of cranes, but without any tremolo... Nature's mystery and life's melancholy! The Fifth Symphony's Finale theme." If Lintu did not quite achieve the thrill of the best interpretations of this symphony, this was a polished and moving performance, in which the score's exploration of dissonance, pointed into longing clashes, seethed powerfully.

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Debussy, Preludes, arr. C. Matthews, Hallé Orchestra, M. Elder

(released on January 11, 2011)
The opening plate of amuse-gueules, five of Debussy's preludes for piano orchestrated by Colin Matthews, did not quite measure up to the significance of the rest of the program. The arrangements had some oddities, missing some of the potential strength of the grand crescendi of La cathédrale engloutie and attempting to recreate the effect of the sustaining pedal in the overlapping sound of the strings in La fille aux cheveux de lin, which came off in the hall a little affected and schmaltzy. The orchestra sounded in good form, with the fizzle-dazzle of bubbling woodwinds and explosions of contraforte in Feux d'artifice, and effusive solo string quartet in Bruyères. Here, as in the Mackey work, an evocative battery of percussion extended the color range of the music.

This concert will be repeated tonight and Saturday night (January 13 and 14, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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