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unFinnished Symphony

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
11/06/1999 -  
Jean Sibelius: The Wood-Nymph, Violin Concerto, Symphony # 5
Pekka Kuusisto (violin)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra
Osmo Vanska (conductor)

No one man in the entire history of music has so dominated the national auditory landscape of his homeland more profoundly than Jean Sibelius. No country at the end of the twentieth century has such an important and all-consuming passion for serious art music than Finland, where there now exists a virtual biosphere for the nurturing and flourishing of musical talent and expression. It was thus a naturally fortuitous experience that the Lahti Symphony Orchestra of Finland performed its American debut concert yesterday afternoon at Avery Fisher Hall. An ensemble of incredibly fresh faces and anticipatory postures, the Lahti are not a youth orchestra but rather an orchestra whose personnel average a very young age probably in the high twenty somethings. This is not a training ground for future stars as much as it is a new venture, full of hope and limitless promise.

Truly a work in progress, the Lahti are focusing on their national repertoire and have made many significant recordings of the contemporary Finnish movement now so vital in the until recently turgid European atmosphere. For their New York tour they are opting for the conservative approach however and began their two concert stint with an all Sibelius program. The first piece is really a find of musical archaeology, a rarely heard early tone poem from the man who from boyhood could see distinct colors when he heard differing chords. A sort of Eddic Siegfried, the hero of The Wood Nymph encounters a variety of characters in his sylvan existence, allowing the young Sibelius to cut his descriptive teeth on the vast reaches of forest and snow which he was able to project all of his life from his own soul to the collective unconscious of an appreciative public. The work is episodic in nature, allowing Maestro Vanska to show off the best feature of this young orchestra, the uncanny ability to stop playing in unison (many supposedly more mature ensembles always butcher this maneuver). The sound of the Lahti strings is quite exhilarating and more than makes up for the rather tinny brass section. There were of course a number of mistakes in this performance, but they were all errors of enthusiasm and easily forgiveable within the delightful experience of observing so many dedicated young people trying so hard to achieve sonorous perfection.

Less satisfying was the performance of the Violin Concerto. 23 year-old Pekka Kuusisto started out interestingly enough, playing his opening so softly as to challenge both the ear and the imagination. This pianissimo beginning was quite an attention grabber, however was not part of a grander conception. He simply played quietly throughout this most broadly Romantic of pieces. Mr. Kuusisto is a very animated individual, making many exaggerated facial and manual gestures to the point where antics are positively distracting. I try not to judge this type of interpretive dancing (I wouldn’t be able to review Simon Rattle at all if I let this type of whirling dervish ritual bother me) but it seemed highly out of place given the young aspiring virtuoso’s bland musical approach. What we were witnessing was the oxymoronic sensation of Mr. Kuusisto appearing to play much more passionately than he actually was. The Sibelius concerto, of all the great violin and orchestra pieces, requires a broad line and an intense digging in to the phrasing. With this performance we got only empty pantomime.

The performance of the Symphony # 5 was extremely spirited but ultimately lacking in the depth of feeling necessary to pull off this unashamedly, heart on the sleeve style of Romanticism. Of all of the Sibelius works, this exposed nerve essay needs a master of communicative power (Bernstein was always my favorite in this particular essay) and Maestro Vanska and his forces are perhaps not ready to pull it off. However, they are very good at stopping, so the ending, exaggerated almost to the point of self-indulgence, was impressive in its way. The overall effect on the listener was one of hope in the future (the piece was written in the dark days of the Great War) and specifically in the continued stream of fine quality musicians who will spread the gospel of the classics into the new millenium.

One of the most endearing phenomena when visiting orchestras come to New York is that their particular ethnic group tends to attend their performances. When the Vienna Philharmonic comes to Carnegie Hall one can easily imagine by the crowd that you are actually in the Musikvereinsaal. When the Cleveland Orchestra comes here, their expatriates are out in force (they are a little harder to spot but snatches of conversation and distinctive native costumes still give them away). Yesterday afternoon it was the Finns who attended in large and highly appreciative numbers. It was interesting to see the homogeniety among the crowd and the players and gave one a sense of fellow-feeling unusual in a normally hard-edged New York event.

The Finns and I were treated to two wonderful encores. After the native New Yorkers staged their lemming-like rush for the exits the Lahti performed a sensitive performance of the Waltz Triste. The re-entrance of the tuba player tipped us all off to the final encore, an extremely rousing performance of (what else?) Finlandia which stirred in the elderly Finnish crowd feelings of pride spawned in the days when their hopelessly outnumbered army on skis successfully repelled the Russian horde. The arousal of the audience made us all remember what music is really all about and what a marvelous medium it is to express the most decent side of the human personality. Here there were no errors; only enthusiasm.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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