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A Taste of Finland in Montreal

Maison symphonique de Montréal, Place des Arts
05/10/2023 -  & May 11, 13, 2023
Lotta Wennäkoski: Verdigris
Sergey Rachmaninov: Isle of the Dead, op. 29
Sergey Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, op. 16
Jean Sibelius: En saga, op. 9

Charles Richard-Hamelin (Piano)
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, John Storgårds (Conductor)

J. Storgårds (© Heikki Tuuli)

Visiting Finnish conductor John Storgårds led two works celebrating his homeland in this weeks’ subscription concerts with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM). Chief conductor with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and Guest Conductor with the National Arts Center Orchestra in Ottawa, Storgårds offered performances of impeccable refinement and taste.

The first, Lotta Wennäkoski’s Verdigris, was premiered in 2015 to celebrate Sibelius’ 150th anniversary. The 11‑minute work was inspired by Sibelius’ En saga which concluded the program. Verdigris is a harsh, cacophonic work featuring strident string arpeggios, rhythmic patterns and vibrating harmonics. Wennäkoski considered the piece “capricious” and a “patina” over music history. As she is quoted in the (on‑line) program note: “Isn’t that more or less what composers do—write new layers on music history, even if their work explicitly refers to older music?” The OSM performed the work with precision and passion, including a hair‑raising crescendo near mid‑way and a softly executed impression of the wind at its conclusion.

En saga, a 20‑minute symphonic tone poem premiered in 1893, is considered a reflection of old Nordic tales, or elemental forces that have shaped Finland’s identity. Sibelius said that it was an “expression of a state of mind”. The OSM gave a tight, well‑balanced rendition with shimmering strings, glowing brass and felicitous woodwinds. The mournful clarinet solo at the end was lovingly rendered.

The program’s other tone poem, Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead, is based on a black and white reproduction of Arnold Böcklin’s 1907 painting of the same title. It depicts Charon gliding across the black water of the river Styx, and the music reflects the gloomy, doom‑like atmosphere one would expect. Two themes, one for life and one for the traditional Dies Iræ theme, struggle for dominance. Invariably, the darker, inevitable “day of wrath” prevails as the work concludes in a diminishing, haunting silence. Again, the impressive forces of the OSM (augmented to six horns) brought out the colors, nuances and drama of the score.

Montreal pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin, Silver Medal winner at the 2015 Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw, gave a generally satisfactory performance of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto. He particularly impressed with dazzling 16th note chords in the Scherzo, a lyric touch in the march movement, and a percussive, leaping texture in the Finale. The first movement, although technically accomplished, was light on that rhythmic pulse that is the backbone of the work.

For some reason, the OSM has stopped printing and distributing the program booklets that are the staple of concert venues. It is now only available on the internet. In its place they print (and sometimes distribute) a small, printed sheet with the logos of about 30 “Partners” on one side, and a list of the works to be performed on the other. And even they are hard to come by. Much to my dismay, at the entrance to the hall I was told by an usher that there were even none of these available, but inside the hall, to my annoyance, I discovered an usher holding a few of these treasures from whom I managed to wrangle a copy. Better than nothing, but not worth keeping as a memento of the concert.

Earl Arthur Love



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