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Invader from Outer Space

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/13/2010 -  
Richard Wagner: Overture to Rienzi
Magnus Lindberg: Clarinet Concerto (U.S. Premiere)
Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, opus 43

Kari Kriikku (Clarinet)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Music Director and Conductor)

K. Kriikku (© Kari Kriikku)

We don’t get many visitors from other galaxies these days, so it was a pleasure to welcome Kari Kriikku to the Earth.

Although his name is Finnish, this clarinet thaumaturgist is evidently from Outer Space, for he plays his instrument the way no earthling could possibly play it. And while he has made several recordings, this is probably Mr. Krikku’s first visit to New York (security arrangements for inter-galactic travel are so debilitating). But here, he had a quartet of advantages to make this visit successful. First, a concerto written for him about seven years ago, by the New York Phil’s own composer-in-residence, Magnus Lindberg. Second, the New York Phil itself at their very best with a very dynamic conductor. Third, the acoustics of Carnegie Hall, which make resounding notes resound, and make the thickest orchestration sound transparent.

Fourth, Mr. Kriikku himself. As an ex-clarinet player, I cannot explain how he reached those notes at least five notes above the physically conceivable high C two octaves above the staff. These were not overtones or harmonics, but natural tones neither squeaking nor artificial, but played out with clarity and color. We have all heard clarinetists playing the glissandi popularized by Gershwin in Rhapsody in Blue. But only Mr. Kriikku could take glissandi phrases, interpolate them with triple-tonguing, whirl from top to bottom in a single five-minute phrase. Or so it seemed. At other times, Mr. Kriikku could have replaced the birds from Rautavaara’s Bird Concerto and done a very creditable job.

Frankly, had I heard this on disc, I would imagine digital or electronic finagling. Hearing it in the flesh, played with such ease, astonishment is one of the only reactions. Mr. Lindberg gave him a solo cadenza near the end of the 25-minute rhapsody, but that was like caviar on top of caviar. The work was a wonderful cadenza from the soft three-note beginning to the end.

I say “astonishment’ was one reaction. The other was a joy in the absolute beauty of the work. While this is undoubtedly written for clarinet solo, Mr. Lindberg has a special way with orchestras. The textures were dense, but each group in the orchestra had their own themes to play. Sometimes brass would blare out against strings, sometimes with them. But always these huge forces–including piano, celesta, two Thai gongs and piccolo trumpet–were grandiose and grand to hear as well.

M. Lindberg (© New York Philharmonic)

Mr. Lindberg’s first work for the Phil was manifestly an orchestral tour de force. The Clarinet Concerto was a work of brilliance, grandiosity and unalloyed joy.

The concert could have been titled “The Finns Are Coming, The Finns Are Coming”, not just for Mr. Lindberg and Mr. Kriikku (yes, he is Finnish: don’t believe that Outer Space stuff), but for the final work from the Godfather of the Finnish Renaissance, Sibelius’s Second Symphony. For some reason, it sounded shorter than usual, but I don’t think there are two editions of the piece. Perhaps it was because conductor Alan Gilbert gave it such a good ample shape, without making it sound either vulgar or overblown. The orchestra was with him (could they hear how Carnegie Hall magnified their efforts?), and the great climaxes had a real spontaneity.

The only non-Finnish work was the opening Rienzi, the “other” Lone Ranger music I heard as a child. All honors to First Chair trumpet Philip Smith from the beginning long A to the martial brass at the end.

Only a single task left now. Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary defined the clarinet as “an instrument of torture…” After Mr. Kriikku’s performance, what choice is there but to burn Mr. Bierce’s satanic words into unreadable ashes?

Harry Rolnick



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