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An Epic Experience

Roy Thomson Hall
05/05/2011 -  and May 6*, 2011
Kaija Saariaho: Laterna Magica – Mirage
Jean Sibelius: Luonnotar, Op. 70 – Der Barde, Op. 64
Ernest Bloch: Schelomo
Maurice Ravel: La Valse

Karita Mattila (Soprano), Anssi Karttunen (Cello)
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Hannu Lintu (Conductor)

K. Mattila (© Lauri Eriksson/Warner Classics International)

“Finland’s Finest” was the apropos tagline for this pair of subscription concerts. The ambitious program certainly gave us an insight as to the depth and strengths of that country’s classical music scene.

Making an impressive debut was conductor Hannu Lintu, a busy (and very tall) man with a nicely developing career in his home country and internationally. In conversation with the TSO’s resident composer, Gary Kulesha, he advised (with reference to the program opener, Kaija Saariaho’s Laterna Magica) to “trust the composer”. He also described the work (composed in 2008) as a “rhythmic kaleidoscope” which turned out to be an accurate description of the 20-minute piece. It is a series of dissonant declarations that fade and disintegrate. Orchestral players utter sotto voce vocalizations (in German, not that one could tell), referring to aspects of light. The title is a reference to the autobiography of the Swedish director Ingemar Bergman. The piece contains several pauses (many very abrupt) - and ends with a long-held silence. The audience was very taken with it.

A distinct contrast was provided by the next work, Ernest Bloch’s richly romantic Schelomo (“Hebraic Rhapsody” for Cello and Orchestra). The composer was inspired by the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes which contains the disillusioned observations of a wise old man – King Solomon no less (according to legend), thus the title of the work. It demands a gamut of expression from the cellist, in this case Anssi Karttunen, who truly rose to the occasion. The multi-layered orchestration of the piece was extremely well brought forward.

The third item presented us with the dazzling soprano Karita Mattila in Luonnotar by Jean Sibelius. What an uncanny piece it is, especially given Ms Mattila’s startling presentation, complete with body language. It is one of Sibelius’s folkloric pieces, recounting a creation myth wherein the earth is created from a broken duck egg (really!) A true diva-as-force-of-nature moment. More audience delight.

The second half opened with a rarely-performed work by Sibelius, The Bard, a brief tone poem from 1913/14. It almost amounts to a harp concerto. The piece has a tentative quality, almost atomized in places. At one point it seems to be taking us into a typically Sibelian sweeping musical journey, but it quickly returns to the harpist’s ruminations.

Another work by Saariaho followed, Mirage, featuring both the soprano and the cellist (and composed for them in 2007). It takes us a long way from Finland in that it sets an incantation written by a Mexican shaman, Maria Sabina (1894-1985), who was involved in rituals using psilocybin mushrooms. The cellist has to extend his technique far beyond what Bloch ever conceived, with glissandi and extreme pitches. The soprano (and after all it’s Karita Mattila!) takes centre stage with the highly emotive vocal lines. She not only sings but speaks and even shouts at some moments. The piece is in English and a repeated “I am” dominates. This could be really hokey but it isn’t, at least not with these performers, not to mention sheer compositional skill.

Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de loin will be presented by the Canadian Opera Company next season. These two striking examples of her work certainly pique one’s interest.

The orchestra launched into the final work on the program well after 10 o’clock and I was thinking that yet another performance of Ravel’s La Valse would be an anti-climax. It turned out to be quite the opposite – absolutely devastating in fact. Hannu Lintu seems to get exactly what he wants from the orchestra – I almost suspect this demanding program received extra rehearsal time.

Michael Johnson



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