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NSO and Finland

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K. Saariaho, Orion (inter alia), Orchestre de Paris, C. Eschenbach

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Sibelius / M. Lindberg, Violin Concertos, L. Batiashvili, Finnish RSO, S. Oramo

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Sibelius, Complete Symphonies, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, L. Segerstam
The opening concert of the Kennedy Center's Nordic Cool festival, given by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic last week, included music from all the major Nordic countries. For his first contribution to the festival, Christoph Eschenbach took a Finnish focus with the National Symphony Orchestra in a concert of music that had mostly not been performed by the orchestra in a long time, if at all, heard last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. It was the conclusion of my intensive, four-night critical stand covering all the major venues of the Kennedy Center.

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.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, NSO struggles with cold material from Finland (Washington Post, March 1)
Music of Jean Sibelius bookended these contemporary pieces, beginning with the tone poem Night Ride and Sunrise, op. 55, not heard from the NSO since 1982. It does not refer to the Kalevala or have folk music influences, beginning with an obsessive dotted-rhythm motif evoking a jagged, jarring sleigh ride once experienced by the composer, dotted by loud brass and percussion accents. As the rhythm is evened out, impassioned string chords impart a tone of tragic realization, over tense timpani rolls, with the musicians giving plenty of time to the crescendo swells in the score. The sunrise appeared in a beautiful bloom of brass, with a glinting flute solo, expanding with the support of strings and woodwinds under the brass. The coloristic repetition was quite similar to Saariaho's approach in Orion, just more tonal. The NSO had not played Sibelius's seventh symphony, op. 105, since Vladimir Ashkenazy conducted it in 2008, and it still sounded in good form. Eschenbach's ideas were not as much to my liking, since he often seemed to push the piece too fast to allow it to blossom as it could. (Following the recommendations of our Jens Laurson in his Ionarts survey of Sibelius cycles, the Leif Segerstam cycle with the Helsinki Philharmonic is my new favorite, with a seventh symphony that thrills and soars with each vast crescendo.) The chamber string soli section was a highlight, but the fast section seemed a little helter-skelter in its lack of unity. Eschenbach did not quite draw out the calming trombone theme, which Sibelius at one point marked in the score with his wife's name ("Aino"), although it was allowed to grow and become more present.

This program repeats tonight and tomorrow night (March 1 and 2, 8 pm) in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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