From Sound and Fury to Graal théâtre, a compelling sonic ritual with Tami Pohjola, the FRSO and Sakari Oramo

Violinist Tami Pohjola, condutor Sakari Oramo and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Helsinki Music Centre after a stunning performance of Kaija Saariaho’s Graal théâtre.
© Jari Kallio 

The ritual of performance is an intriguing phenomenon. Even with the COVID-19 restrictions upon us, the essential ingredients of a live performance prevail. Interestingly, some aspects of this ritual are even enhanced by the various safety measures applied.

Seated with safety distances, with less contact to the other members of the audience, the interaction between the stage and each listener becomes more personal. In similar manner, with smaller forces at play onstage, the dialogue between the musicians, and the conductor alike, is transformed into the realm chamber music. 

Meanwhile, the iconic concert scheme of an overture, a concerto and a symphony endures. While it is refreshing, and essential, to smash this mold every now and then, the concert with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Helsinki Music Centre on Wednesday demonstrated that innovative programming can be worked out within a traditional scheme too. 

With the FRSO Honorary Conductor Sakari Oramo on the podium, the evening was augured with Anna Clyne’s Sound and Fury (2019) for chamber orchestra. Commissioned and premiered by Pekka Kuusisto and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, launching Clyne’s tenure as the orchestra’s Associate Composer, the fifteen-minute Sound and Fury salutes two masters of yore, Joseph Haydn and William Shakespeare

On a musical level, Sound and Fury stems from Haydn’s Symphony in C Major, Hob. I:60 Il Distratto (1774-75), which Clyne studied in detail, picking up rhythmic gestures, harmonic progressions and melodic ideas to be used as the source material. In the manner of Stravinsky, the musical material is reworked and developed within the composers own framework, thus resulting in an original work with fascinating, dream-like associations. 

Sound and Fury is scored for a classical orchestra, with the inclusion of a five-octave marimba and bells. The music bursts into being with rapid string cascades setting the pace. Joined by winds, brass and marimba, the music builds up to the first tutti section. 

From the orchestral fabric, the ear picks Haydnesque musical items, such as brass fanfares, woodwind textures and string lines. Following the opening, the music cools down to a haunting soundscape, evoking a Scottish landscape of Shakespeares’s Macbeth (1606).

The opening material returns, with the orchestra speeding up again. With soaring melodic lines, the music becomes airborne, as if the wind in the moors. A quote from Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943) sneaks in, before the orchestral fabric lands on an achingly beautiful elegy, accompanied by a spoken quote from Macbeth’s last soliloquy.    

With a whirlwind-of-a-coda, Sound and Fury is brought to its gripping close. Performed with vigor and lyricism by the FRSO and Oramo, the evening was set into intense motion.   

The FRSO and Honoray Conductor Sakari Oramo onstage at the Helsinki Music Centre.
© Jari Kallio 

Kaija Saariaho’s masterpiece-of-a-violin-concerto Graal théâtre (1994) is the most extraordinary thing. The title refers to a book of the same name by Jacques Roubaud, revisiting the dramaturgy of the legends of the Round Table. With her choice of title, Saariaho refers to the ritualistic nature of a performance, especially in a concerto setting, and its repercussions for a composer.

The two-movement concerto is dedicated to Gidon Kremer, who premiered the piece with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen at the 1995 Proms, a performance subsequently released on CD by Sony Classical. Since its first performance, Graal théâtre has since become one of the most successful contemporary concertos, and deservedly so. 

The score exists in two guises. In 1997, the composer revoked the original orchestration into a wondrous rescoring for chamber orchestra. The chamber version was premiered and recorded (for Ondine) by John Storgårds and Avanti!, conducted by Hannu Lintu.   

It is hard, and also pointless, to choose a favourite between the two versions. Rather, both scores convey special charm of their own, from the glowing textures of the symphonic version to the crystal-clear intimacy of the chamber version. 

Graal is fierce”, said Jennifer Koh in our discussion on Saariaho’s music at the Summer Sounds festival in Porvoo last year. In a way, that short statement perfectly captures the essence of Graal théâtre. Even though a lot of it is delicately scored, the emotional intensity is ever tangible throughout the score.

The soloist’s extended incantation opens the first movement, with delicato punctuations from triangle, chorales, bass drum, timpani and harp, later joined by Chinese tom-tom. Saariaho’s writing for violin is luminous, with traditional and extended playing techniques blending together in an organic manner, resulting in utmost expressivity, often carried out in the most sublime ways. 

The srtings enter from bar 32 on, starting with a pianissimo double bass beat and climbing all the the way to the sforzato first violins at bar 66. Coloured by woodwind trills, the textures intensify as the movement enters the più mosso, energico section. 

A wondrous scenery of interactions between the solo violin and the orchestra ensues, as the first movement ritual unravels. On the closing page the glimmering solo line shines through the ppp hue of the string ensemble, evaporating in the distance. 

The Impetuoso second movement is launched by the soloist alone, playing rapid, descending four-note patterns, marked furioso. After thirteen bars, the first pair of short interjections is heard from the orchestra. After further nine bars, the soloist is allowed a brief rest as a short orchestral interlude is heard. 

A tableau of vivid sonic imagery is unveiled, clad in the most extraordinary textures and harmonic colours. Following this intense, multi-layered theatre of sound, the orchestral fabric becomes ever more transparent, until only the last few threads of accompaniment hover in the air. With a single echo from triangle, the solo violin brings Graal théâtre to its magical close.

Violinist Tami Pohjola. © Apollo Artistit

With the astonishing Tami Pohjola as soloist, Graal théâtre was given a fabulous performance. Her compelling mastery over the solo line, both incredibly nuanced and tremendously expressive, was absolutely spellbinding. With Oramo at the helm, the FRSO musicians delivered a stunning sonic realization of Saariaho’s splendid chamber orchestra scoring. 

So intense was the experience, that even now, days after, these astounding sonorities are solidly etched in memory, as if the performance had never ended. A formidable ritual recreating itself in the solitude of the mind.   

Closing the evening with a full circle, Sergei Prokofieff’s teasing homage to Haydn, the Classical Symphony (1917) was heard. Prokofieff’s first symphonic endeavor seems to be on its way to become a trademark COVID-19-era piece, given that over the past couple of weeks both Susanna Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic and Santtu-Matias Rouvali and the Tampere Philharmonic have also included it in their programmes

And why not, for the Classical Symphony is a joyous thing to hear. Scored for a genuinely classical orchestra, with two sonata-allegros framing a lovely larghetto and a brilliant gavotte, the fifteen-minute symphony is a dazzling re-imagination of Haydn, with its modern origins apparent throughout. 

With Oramo and the FRSO, the eighteenth and twentieth centuries idioms were fused together in the most uplifting way, yielding to an absolutely delightful performance, that would have made both Prokofiev and Haydn proud. Light and airy, bright and bittersweet, the score was resounded with spirited musicality and exemplary teamwork. 

After an evening like this, one was feeling simply so lucky to have been a part of the ritual of live performance there at the Music Centre. 

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra 

Sakari Oramo, conductor

Tami Pohjola, violin 

Anna Clyne: Sound and Fury (2019) for chamber orchestra

Kaija Saariaho: Graal théâtre (1994/1997) for violin and chamber orchestra

Sergei Prokofieff: Classical Symphony in D (Symphony No. 1), Op. 25 (1917) for orchestra

Music Centre, Helsinki

Wednesday 23 September, 8 pm

 © Jari Kallio 

Pekka Kuusisto, Elina Vähälä and the Helsinki Philharmonic made each bar matter

Magnus Lindberg salutes Elina Vähälä, Pekka Kuusisto and the Helsinki Philharmonic after a wondeful performance of Violin Concerto No. 1 at Helsinki Music Centre. © Jari Kallio

For this week’s concerts at their Helsinki Music Centre home, the Helsinki Philharmonic teamed up with ever-inspiring Pekka Kuusisto, who appeared as solo violinist, fellow orchestral musician and conductor in the course of the brilliant programme. 

With the hall darkened to pitch black, save the dimly lit stage front, the evening was launched with Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers for Violin (2014). Scored for amplified solo violin and electronic soundtrack, including sampled voices, Vespers comes into being gradually, with the solo violin line hovering in emptiness. 

The long notes begin make way for sublime tone-bursts and, eventually turning into an extended melodic arch, clad in the eventide hue of the sounding cloudscape of the electronics, resulting in an intense meditation, befittingly reflecting those strange, silenced lockdown months we’ve endured this year of uncertainty. 

With Kuusisto the solo line breathed wondrously, alternating between weightlessness and tangible intensity, as if an impassioned prayer. Joined by dancer Esete Sutinen, with fine choreography by Sonya Lindfors, Vespers was an extraordinary opener. 

Originally commissioned as a companion piece for György Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto (1969-70), Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Hrím (2009-10) is thrilling ten-minute study of musical material traveling and transforming through the sonic realm of an ensemble of dozen-or-so musicians. 

In terms of its ambience, Hrím is not far removed from the dark-hued realm of Vespers. Musical ideas appear, as if from the mists, hovering in time and space, gaining new perspectives. In this utmost fascinating realm, intriguing harmonic colours arise from small streams, joined into gorgeous nocturnal textures. 

Conducted by Kuusisto, the members of the Helsinki Philharmonic clad Hrím in ravishing guise, yielding to a magical experience. The instrumental fabric unraveled with translucence, filled with fine detail. A dream-like performance, with compelling presence, hearing Hrím was such a profound experience. 

Now, one could imagine that a transformation from Thorvaldsdottir’s night-realm into there radiance of young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Divertimento in D Major, KV 136 (1772) might feel a bit weird, but with Kuusisto and the Helsinki Philharmonic it seemed the most natural thing to do. 

Sometimes it is impossible to explain, why some pieces yield to a wonderful continuum in a concert setting, despite their fundamental differences. And this transformation was a case in point. 

For the Divertimento, Kuusisto did not appear on the podium, but joined the Helsinki Philharmonic strings as a guest leader, thus embracing the essentially chamber music nature of Mozart’s luminous three-movement piece. 

There was sheer joy on music-making on each and every bar, with both the orchestra and the audience enraptured by Mozart’s unparalleled invention. Be it the upbeat opening allegro,the gracious andante or the dexterous, yet delightfully earthy presto fugue, the Divertimento was pure, sounding joie de vivre. 

Pekka Kuusisto and the Helsinki Philharmonic strings. © Jari Kallio

In similar vein, Sándor Veress’s Quattro danze Transilvane (1944-49) for strings orchestra yielded to a thoroughly invigorating experience. Based on the very same folk idioms that inspired Bartók and the young Ligeti, Veress’s dances combine rousing energy and crisp harmonies into fabulous sonorities. 

In a way, Quattro danze Transilvane seemed to sum up the moods of Mazzoli, Thorvaldsdottir and Mozart into carnivalesque mixture of sunshine and moonlight, thus providing a mid-evening finale par excellence. Performed with vigor by the Helsinki Philharmonic Strings. lead by Kuusisto, these dances were simply dazzling. 

The programme closed with the most extended piece of the evening, Magnus Lindberg’s twenty-six-minute Violin Concerto No. 1 (2006). Commissioned for the celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, the concerto was premiered at the 2006 Mostly Mozart festival in New York, with Lisa Batiashvili as soloist and Louis Langrée conducting the festival orchestra. 

Since its premiere, the concerto has become a solid part of the contemporary repertoire. Over the years, Kuusisto has performed the score on several occasions as both soloist and conductor. In 2013 he recorded the concerto for Ondine with Tapiola Sinfonietta. Last fall, he appeared as soloist in a performance conducted by the composer, in conjunction with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra’s two-week Lindberg Festival.

This time, however, Kuusisto had picked up the baton instead of the bow, with the marvellous Elina Vähälä performing the aptly challenging solo part. 

Lindberg’s concerto is scored for a Mozartian orchestra of small(ish) string section and two each of oboes, bassoons and horns.  The score is cast into three movements, performed attacca, with a substantial solo cadenza, fully written out in the score. 

Yet the music itself is one hundred per cent Lindberg, although clad in the raiments of a classical orchestra. Devoid of percussion and heavy brass, the score transforms the Lindbergian idiom into wondrously airy sonorities.

Unlike Mozart, Lindberg dispenses with the orchestral introduction and launches his concerto with a soaring solo line, gently echoed by pianissimo strings. After sixteen bars, there is an accelerando, with the oboes joining the texture in rapid cascades. 

There are few tacit sections for the soloist in the course of the entire concerto. The solo violin part flows ever forward, permuting from one sonic real to another, within Lindberg’s ingenious invention. Musical ideas travel back and forth between the soloist and the orchestral musicians, resulting in a fascinating developmental arch. 

As always with Lindberg, the musical dialogue proceeds rapidly from one subject to another, resulting in flourishingly rich textures. The score is rooted in extraordinary rhythmic impetus, smoothened into fabulously classical guise by the scoring. 

At the Music Centre, the solo part was performed with compelling dedication and virtuosity by Vähälä. From her opening statement on, the violin line was clad in astonishing colours, with delicate care for the minutiae detail in intonation, rhythm and texture. The sonic vision of the cadenza was simply breathtaking.

Lindberg Violin Concerto No. 1 with Elina Vähälä and the Helsinki Philharmonic, conducted by Pekka Kuusisto. © Jari Kallio

With Kuusisto on the podium, the Helsinki Philharmonic conveyed the orchestra fabric with exemplary energy and precision. The strings tackled Lindberg’s challenges with conviction, whether singing in the topmost registers or grunting deep in the fundaments of the sonic scale. 

Be it the oboe arpeggios, the colour-clad bassoon lines or the sublime horn fanfares, the Helsinki Philharmonic wind players shone throughout the concerto. The dialogue between Vähälä and the orchestra was ever organic, with the balance aptly controlled by Kuusisto. Each bar mattered.

An evening of inspired music-making, the Helsinki Philharmonic proved, once again, that even with the COVID-19 restrictions still upon us, the concert experience is a fundamental form of discovery, now needed more than ever. 

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Pekka Kuusisto, violin and conductor

Elina Vähälä, violin

Esete Sutinen, dance

Sonya Lindfors, choreography

Missy Mazzoli: Vespers for Violin (2014)

Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Hrím (2010) for chamber orchestra

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Divertimento in D Major, KV 136 (1772)

Sándor Veress: Quattro danze Transilvane (1944-49) for string orchestra

Magnus Lindberg: Violin Concerto No. 1 (2006)

Music Centre, Helsinki

Tuesday 22 September, 6 pm

© Jari Kallio 

Thunderous Beethoven and exquisite Gossec with Les Siècles & François-Xavier Roth

When the year turned to 2020, we launched into the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth, with concert calendars full of celebratory events all over the planet. At that time, our biggest upheaval concerned whether or not an iconic composer of LvB’s stature needed to be celebrated with such intensity, given that his music has been omnipresent in the concert halls and on record for ages.

Enter COVID-19 and we found ourselves in a completely different universe, with concert halls closed and everything cancelled for months to come. As it happened, my very last live concert before lockdown featured Beethoven’s largely forgotten almost-masterpiece, the oratorio Christus am Ölberge (1803/1804/1811), performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle. A near-miss of the recreation of Beethoven’s 1808 Academy Concert with Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen in London was my first musical sacrifice to COVID-19.

Still, many interesting new recordings kept coming during the lockdown months, including the complete Piano Concertos with Stephen Hough, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Hannu Lintu on Hyperion, and the Symhonies 1-3 with Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Adès on Signum, to point out two formidable examples.

Now, some six months later, in a period of reopenings and rekindled hope, Beethoven is very much back on the agenda. Over the past couple of days, the marvellous French conductor François-Xavier Roth and his outstandingly versatile period-instrument ensemble Les Siècles have not only released an absolutely astounding recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony but performed and recorded the Eroica as well.

The new Harmonia Mundi release of Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1804-08) was recorded at the Philharmonie de Paris in March 2017, in conjunction with live performances. I remember missing it then, with regret, due schedule conflicts, and listening to the recorded take, my regret has grown ever more deeper, hand in hand with the profound joy of having this performance captured on disc.

While there are some who might think that the market is already more than saturated with all those recordings of the Fifth Symphony made over the period of 107 years following Arthur Nikisch’s first gramophone rendition of the score with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1913, I fondly recall my conversation with conductor Daniel Harding back in 2015, where he pointed out how no number of recordings will ever be enough with a masterpiece, recreated with each, unique performance.

Listening to the thunderous performance Roth and Les Siècles, those wise words came back to me with life-affirming force. Even with all those remarkable performance’s I’ve come across with over the years, none of them prepared me for the sheer earthquake-of-a-performance recorded here.

As always with music, excellence is not measured with simple (or complex) ranking-lists, as fun as they might be. That is not to say that I don’t make them in my head, of course I do. Rather, I’ve brought it up as a disclaimer for not picking a favourite in the course of the following brief analysis.

For the record, let me begin by saying that there has been three defining moments for me regarding to the Fifth Symphony. I first fell in love with the piece upon hearing Herbert von Karajan’s early 1960s recording with the Berlin Philharmonic. A recording I still find commanding in its intensity and astonishing clarity.

Then came the unparalleled discovery of period practice, in the guise of Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s milestone recording with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique from the early nineties. Under his baton the symphony was turned into this wild embodiment of our consuming human struggle and eventual epiphany. Enhanced by the novelties of period timbres, that recording seemed to venture into a forgotten realm of sound.

And the third key moment arrived last week, with Les Siècles and Roth.

François Xavier Roth conducting Les Siècles.
© Holger Talinski.

A lot has happened in the Beethoven realm since the early days of Gardiner’s Beethoven, let alone of Karajan’s. Nowadays, the printed score of Beethoven’s Fifth looks quite different from those old editions, based on mid-19th century sources.

The pioneering work of Jonathan Del Mar, based on an in-depth research of Beethoven’s autograph and other first-hand sources, has presented us with a whole new insight on the symphony as Beethoven intended it, by correcting the myriad of mistakes and incongruences found in the earlier prints. Del Mar’s extraordinary edition, published by Bärenreiter in 1999 and now widely used, provides the starting point for Roth and Les Siècles as well.

In addition, following Gardiner’s lead, Roth and his team of musicians, many of them appearing in the ranks of ORR as well, dazzlingly emphasize the fascinating two-way street between Beethoven and Paris.

Beethoven’s Fifth and the French Revolution are tied together on so many ways. The struggle towards liberté, egalité, fraternité, the ideals of the Revolution, is manifested by Beethoven’s symphonic scheme, as an arch from oppression to freedom. Beethoven’s music picks up where the revolution dissolved, fulfilling the uprising within the real of music.

On more tangible level, Beethoven was inspired by the revolutionary songs, sung in the streets of Paris. Some of the texts and and actual melodies from the streets found their way into Beethoven’s score, and eventually to our collective psyche.

To complete the circle, Beethoven’s symphonies arrived in Paris in the late 1820s, with performances hitherto unparalleled in preparation and execution. These concerts profoundly shaped the course of the French music, paving the way for Hector Berlioz, whose Symphonie fantastique would thrill the city upon its 1830 premiere. And the rest is history.

Of all the performances I’ve heard either in concert of on record, Roth and Les Siècles are probably the team most intensely conveying the particularity of the revolutionary aspect of Beethoven’s Fifth. Having said that, the performance is by no means a mere soundtrack to a Bastille Day cosplay, but a sounding embodiment of the unstoppable spirit of musical invention, to a cathartic effect.

The four-note opening statement is uttered with relentless force, breathtakingly paced, yet ever immaculately phrased and balanced. Like a thunderbolt, the music flows through its scaffolding with immense steadfastness, as a single, extended breath. Beethoven’s dynamic markings are carefully taken into account to minutiae detail, resulting in a vividly detailed performance.

Beethoven’s obstinate repetitions are always subtly animated, thus fulfilling their key function as emotional chargers in the most resplendent way.

Described as a prayer by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the andante con moto second movement bears empowering sense of collective energy, harvested from each orchestral section. In terms of pacing, Roth’s choice of tempi coincide well with my personal understanding of Beethoven’s markings, yielding to a highly satisfying experience. Combined with riveting dynamic scale and astonishing orchestral colour, who could ask for more!

Les Siècles and Francois-Xavier Roth in performance.
© Jose Albornoz

The scherzo, one of Beethoven’s most extraordinary symphonic movements, is given a roaring performance, filled with nuanced detail, electrified by sonorities fabulously charged with tangible tension. Like Rattle and Salonen, Roth omits the big repeat, unleashing the music in one direst line with his marvellous musicians.

Beethoven’s finale bursts into fully fledged outdoor spirit, as the symphonic ensemble is joined by trombones and piccolo. A long-awaited feast, the music flourishes in resplendent colours, propelled by the rejoicing orchestral apparatus of Les Siècles; a joyous universe to dwell beyond time and space.

Brought to its end by a wondrous rendition of Beethoven’s truly one-of-a-kind coda, this is a performance to be endorsed loud and clear! So fundamentally different from the recent account by Andris Nelsons and Wiener Philharmoniker on DG, Roth and his musicians explore a very different region of the LvB realm, which still contains uncharted territories. 

Although one would be perfectly satisfied with the Beethoven symphony alone, Roth and Les Siècles treat us with the most exciting coupling imaginable, François-Joseph Gossec’s Symphonie à dix-sept parties, RH64 (1807/1809).

During his remarkably long years, Gossec witnessed a huge transformation of the musical world, from the heydays of Rameau all the way Berlioz.

Among his fascinatingly diverse output, the Symphonie is probably his best-known work. It is based on a three-part overture written for an unrealized opera project in the 1780s, thoroughly reworked, with minuet added in 1807-09, or so, thus making the Symphonie a contemporary of Beethoven’s Fifth.

More akin to the classical symphony of Haydn and especially Mozart, Gossec’s score is nevertheless an astonishingly original creation, unmistakably French in its very essence.

In terms of performance practice, while there have been two published editions of Gossec’s Symphonie available, neither of these have been based on an in-depth study of the autograph. This has been a huge deficit, given the exceptionally ambiguous nature of Gossec’s manuscript.

Filled with contradicting alternations, amendments and omissions, the autograph score was tailored over and over again by the composer for each performance, without clear indication for preferred solutions.

Thus all modern performances so far have been based on editions far-guessing Gossecs original. The recording by Roth and Les Siècles is the first to use the new critical edition by Louis Castelain and published  by Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles  in 2018. 

The symphony opens with a maestoso introduction, leading to the main allegro. The rapid string passages, airy winds and resounding trumpets, with timpani, are woven together into resplendent orchestral textures, in the manner of a spirited overture. 

Roth and Les Siècles embrace Gossec’s writing with upbeat vigour, setting the symphony admirably in motion. 

Gracious andante ensues, lead by strings, with contrasting tutti bursts. Not a mere interlude, the second movement is performed with finesse by the wonderful musicians of Les Siècles. 

The Menuet, composed in 1809, two years after the premiere of the three-movement version, contains some of the most intriguing passages of the entire symphony. Cast as an intemse fugue, with enchanting trio middle section, the movement is a case in point of Gossec’s craft of counterpoint. Dazzlingly performed, the Menuet is a veritable highlight. 

Rounding off with a rousing allegro molto, the symphony closes with sonic festivity for full orchestra. A powerhouse performance, the Finale provides a perfect final track for an astonishing disc. 

Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth in rehearsal.
© Holger Talinski

Recorded at La Seine Musicale, Boulogne-Billancourt in February 2019, the Gossec Symphonie is an exquisite discovery. As a whole the new Harmonia Mundi album succeds in reminding us why recording Beethoven still matters as much as ever, as well as stressing the importance of widening our repertoire. 

Les Siècles

François-Xavier Roth, conductor

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony in C minor, Op. 67 (1804-08)

François-Joseph Gossec: Symphonie à dix-sept parties, RH64 (1807-09)

Recorded at Philharmonie de Paris, March 2017 (Beethoven) and La Seine Musicale, Boulogne-Billancourt, February 2019 (Gossec)

Harmonia Mundi HMM 902423 (2020), 1 CD

© Jari Kallio

Stupendous Adams Chamber Symphony by Salonen and the FRSO amazed both the live audience and the webstreaming composer

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting John Adams’s Chamber Symphony (1992) with the members of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. © Jari Kallio

The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra’s refreshing autumn season continued with another wonderful programme at the Helsinki Music Centre on Friday. 

While Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto and John Adams’s Chamber Symphony both appeared in the original programme, announced in August, neither Edward Gardner nor Jan Lisiecki, the original conductor and soloist team, were able to join the FRSO due to the COVID-19 traveling restrictions imposed by the Finnish government.

Luckily Esa-Pekka Salonen was in town, in fact almost next door, conducting Covid fan tutte at the Finnish National Opera, where his interactive operatic collaboration, Laila was also presented this fall. Salonen’s schedule made him thus available for the FRSO podium. 

As for the soloist of the evening, the marvellous Paavali Jumppanen stepped in to play the Schumann concerto.  

John Adams’s Chamber Symphony (1992) is one of the most cheerful pieces of contemporary music (broadly speaking, given that the score is, believe it or not, 28 years old). Its title and instrumentation bears obvious resemblance to Arnold Schoenberg’s Kammersymphonie, Op. 9 (1906) for fifteen solo instruments.

In terms of musical language, Adams’s every youthful score is a carnivalesque mixture of musical idioms, ranging from Schoenberg to Stravinsky, with Hindemith in between, not forgetting classical American cartoon music, scored by those formidable Hollywood talents, many of whom were taught by Schoenberg.

All these diverse influences come together under an unmistakably Adamsian roof, resulting in a dazzling, unprejudiced mixture, labelled as Mongrel Airs in the opening movement. As a result of Adams’s roots in American minimalism, the music is propelled by an unrelenting pulse, charged with sonic energy.

Yet, Adams’s riot-of-a-counterpoint and wondrously crisp chromaticism are far removed from the gradually evolving, quasi-impressionistic layers of the minimalist classics of the 1970s and early 1980s. With instrumental virtuosity more akin to Ligeti or hardcore experimental jazz, Adams’s musical fabric is clad in riveting guise.

In addition to the quasi-Schoenbergian ensemble, Adams introduces a percussion set, synthesizer keyboard as well as trumpet and trombone, thus extending the instrumental palette towards the realm of Milhaud’s La Création du monde, Op. 81a (1922-23) and Copland’s Music for the Theatre (1925).

Following the whirlwind-of-an-opening-movement, Aria with Walking Bass ensues. As suggested by its title, there movement is built upon a prominent double bass beat. A solo trombone establishes the aria, musing with it a while until passing it over to the next concertante instrument. In the course of the unfolding fabric, the solo line permutes through the ensemble, including a piccolo part, apparently strayed from Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony (1910-11).

The solo line(s) alter between more hyperactive sections, giving rise to intriguing ambivalence in mood and texture.

The twenty-or-so-minute Chamber Symphony closes with Roadrunner finale. A chase scene par excellence, the finale speeds up to the maximum, pushing the ensemble virtuosity to the extreme. As the movement proceeds, all the kinetic energy becomes channeled into a hilariously dexterous violin solo, perhaps a pre-echo of Adams’s Violin Concerto (1993).

However, whereas the violin part in the Concerto was inspired, partly, by Persian music, Roadrunner is firmly rooted in bluegrass. Following the solo, the whole ensemble joins in a splendid blast-of-a-coda, to bring Chamber Symphony to its ravishing close.

While one could analyze the multitude of virtues inherent in the astounding performance by Salonen and the members of the FRSO to the bone, it may be more informative to simply quote the composer resounding endorsement posted on Twitter:

With Salonen’s deeply rooted grasp on Adams’s musical idiom,the tremendous instrumental energy of the Chamber Symphony was unleashed with stupendous virtuosity and detail, ever clad in apt tongue-in-cheek spirit.

The five solo strings were gently amplified, befittingly for the large hall. The sixteen-piece virtuoso ensemble was perfectly balanced by Salonen, guided by his impeccable ear. With the wonderful FRSO musicians, the joyous universe of the Chamber Symphony filled the Music Centre with upbeat energy, invigorating both the mind and the body.

For Robert Schumann,1841 was a year abound with orchestral inspiration. Not only did he compose the Spring Symphony and the first version of Symphony in D minor, but he also wrote an one-movement Phantasie for piano and orchestra,.

The Phantasie, written within a week in May 1841, turned out to be a hard sell, even after two revisions, carried out in August 1841 and 1843, respectively. It was Clara Schumann, who suggested his husband to expand the piece into a full-scale concerto, resulting in one of the key pieces in the medium.

Both the original Phantasie and the completed Concerto were premiered with Clara as soloist. Since then it has become one of the most loved concertos of the 19th century, widely programmed in concert and on record.

Still, the Concerto in A minor is not a routine thing, far from it. Curiously, though it is not a traditional virtuoso concerto, first-and-foremost, it is one of the most challenging romantic concertos to perform. The soloist and the orchestra are woven together within an intricate musical fabric, yielding to the most sophisticated musical dialogue.

In order to truly come off in a performance, the soloist and the conductor must be perfectly tuned to each other’s sensibility and musical vision, both in terms of the architectonic whole and execution of detail. For the musicians of the orchestra, this is essentially chamber music, calling forth the most nuanced expression.

On Friday, all these extraordinary challenges were met with inspiration, intensity and finesse by Jumppanen and the FRSO under Salonen. The opening Phanteasie movement, marked Allegro affetuoso, resulted in an intensely captivating arch, with the soloist and the orchestra blending together in shared musical vision.

The solo piano and the orchestra were ideally balanced, with phrases woven together into one seamless entity, clad in autumnal beauty. Salonen, who recorded the piece with Hélène Grimaud for Deutsche Grammophon in Dresden in 2005, had worked out the orchestral part to the finest detail with the wonderful musicians of the FRSO, thus conveying the most translucent performance.

Jumppanen’s approach to the solo part was one of finesse and detail, channeling the inherent intensity of the musical line to sounding reality without any exaggeration or mannerism. Instead, the piano line was fused together with the orchestra into one extended chamber texture, to an enchanting effect.

The two latter movements, an intermezzo, marked andantino grazioso and an allegro vivace finale-rondo, played attacca,are designed to balance the main movement. The intermezzo is clad in simple and clean musical lines, rooted in reflective lyricism. The rondo, in turn, summons the whole ensemble to join the intense sonic flow, bringing the concert to its wonderful close.

These contrasting natures of these two movements were performed with sublime sensitivity and clear-cut clarity by Jumppanen and the orchestra. Salonen was again the ever-watchful parter to his soloist, keeping the ensemble alwayis in apt balance. On a deeper musical level, the communication between the soloist and the orchestra was exemplary, leading to a thoroughly satisfying experience.

Paavali Jumppanen, ESa-Pekka Salonen and the FRSO after the performance of Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor. © Jari Kallio

All in all, Jumppanen, Salonen and the marvellous musicians of the FRSO reminded us all, once again, why this music matters so much. A truly Schumannesque experience.

As a gratifying encore, Jumppanen gave an absolutely enchanting performance of Sibelius’s The Spruce from the piano suite The Trees, Op. 75 (1914/1919).   

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

Paavali Jumppanen, piano

Robert Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54 (1841-45)

John Adams: Chamber Symphony (1992)

Music Centre, Helsinki

Friday 18 September 2020, 8 pm

© Jari Kallio

Discovering the next generation with the Lahti Symphony and Slobodeniouk

Chief Conductor Dima Slobodeniouk with Lara Poe, Stephen Webb, Olli Moilanen, Petros Paukkunen and Dante Thelestam at the Sibelius Hall. © Jari Kallio

Though the acoustically celebrated Main Hall of the Lahti Sibelius Hall is still closed, Lahti Symphony Orchestra and their Chief Conductor Dima Slobodeniouk resumed live performances at the hall’s atmospheric foyer, also known as Forest Hall, on Thursday evening.

The concert was an intriguing one, featuring six new works by young (more-or-less) Finnish composers, tutored by their mature colleagues, as a part of the Nursery Garden scheme of the Sibelius Festival.

As a result, following a rehearsal period from Monday to Thursday, the safety-distanced, enthusiastic audience got to hear six fascinating ten-minute works, embracing a wonderful variety of styles and ideas. Performed with the usual high-level dedication and craft of the Lahti Symphony musicians and Slobodeniouk, the evening provided delightful insight on the creative activity of a new generation of professionals.

Narrated by Slobodeniouk, the evening included a short interview with each composer, followed by a performance.

Olli Moilanen’s Väylät (Passes, 2020) leaps into being with a busy opening section, bristling with instrumental activity. Unexpectedly, the music calms down into luminous, quasi-meditative string textures, extended in time.

Coloured by percussion, the textures permute trough various timbral spheres. Gradually joined by winds and brass, the piece is brought to a captivating close.

An inventive mixture of various idioms, Väylät is a compelling study of contrasting moods, with both abrupt and gradual transformations. A befitting concert-opener, Moilanen’s score bears the allure of instant communicativeness.

There is formidable allure in the translucent textures of Lara Poe’s Kaamos (Polar Night, 2020) as well. A musical tableau marvellously reflecting that unique limbo between darkness and daylight, Kaamos displays Poe’s formidable textural craft, clad in intriguing sonorities.

In the midst of the orchestral hue, musical subjects are manifested, en passant, before evaporating and re-emerging in surprising guises. There seems to be a distant relationship between Kaamos and Jean Sibelius’s enigmatic Fourth Symphony (1910-11), at least in terms of textural elusiveness.

Halfway through Kaamos, abrief oboe solo is heard, functioning as a bridge into the second section of the piece. Here the music assumes more kinetic guise, while maintaining its transparent essence. These new sonorities inhabit the same half-lit universe, while gazing into a different horizon.

A sonic image of the North, on many levels, Kaamos is a veritable discovery.

Dima Slobodeniouk and the Lahti Symphony performing Lara Poe’s Kaamos. © Jari Kallio

Stephen Webb’s My Grievance with Nostalgia (2020) has its roots, at least to some extent in the music of Charles Ives, manifested by quarter-tone harmonies and spatial elements. Scored for an offstage string quartet and orchestra, My Grievance with Nostalgia may be seen as a contemporary formulation of The Unanswered Question (1906/1930-35).

However, it should be noted, that Webb’s musical language is, in many ways, very different from Ives’s. My Grievance with Nostalgia unravels in sublime, almost gentle manner, with darker undercurrents. Musical ideas are exchanged and transformed in dialogue between the onstage and offstage ensembles.

Emerging organically from the sonic fabric, there is bittersweet beauty in Webb’s quarter-tone textures. My Grievance with Nostalgia may be analyzed in terms of meditation, albeit far removed from trendy Mindfulness practices.

Rosverk (2020) by Dante Thelestam is a curious case, in the most positive sense. It is a case in point of music that simply defies any kind of verbal description. Rosverk exists between the lines, marvellously untouched by words.

Yet, Thelestam’s piece is, in its gradual emergence, compellingly tangible, almost physical thing. There is a fascinating paradox between the utmost sublime, almost frail appearance of the music and its intense, charged presence.

Both serene and gripping, light and heavy, Rosverk is an amazing experience, both aurally and mentally.

As a tour-de-force finale to a wonderful evening, Petros Paukkunen’s Prometheus-inspired Touched by Sacred Fire was unleashed. Based on a fast-slow-fast scheme with extended coda, the score is challenging thing to play, due to its tricky rhythms and fierce beat, contrasted by a graciously sonorous middle section.

In a way, Touched by Sacred Fire could be descried as a younger sibling of the opening movement of John Adams’s Harmonielehre (1985). Both works combine relentlessly propulsive main sections, with a seductive oasis of sound in the middle. Yet again, Paukkunen’s musical idiom constitutes its own, brilliant entity.

While not programmatic per se, Touched by Sacred Fire does reflect the eternal duality of all inspiration and invention. On a purely musical level, the score provided a perfect close for the joyful evening.

Lahti Symphony and Dima Slobodeniouk. © Jari Kallio

All in all, the Sibelius Festival, together with the mentor composers, Perttu Haapanen, Sebastian Fagerlund, Riikka Talvitie, Lotta Wennäkoski and Matthew Whittall, had succeeded in providing a substantial platform for the young professionals. Together with the extraordinary Lahti Symphony and ever-committed maestro Slobodeniouk, five splendidly original new works came into being in the most delightful way.

Looking forward to the next chapters.

Lahti Symphony Orchestra

Dima Slobodeniouk, conductor

Sibelius Festival Nursery Garden

Olli Moilanen: Väylät

Lara Poe: Kaamos

Stephen Webb: My Grievance with Nostalgia

Dante Thelstam: Rosverk

Petros Paukkunen: Touched by Sacred Fire

Forest Hall of the Sibelius Hall, Lahti

Thursday 17 September, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio

Album review: With LA Phil and Dudamel, the Ives symphonies are come

Let me begin by saying that the new Los Angeles Philharmonic recording of the complete symphonies of Charles Ives is probably the most substantial album of the Gustavo Dudamel era so far, alongside the astounding premiere recording of John Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012).

The new album is recorded in conjunction with live performances at the Walt Disney Concert Hall last February, just a week-or-so before COVID-19 lockdown. Coupled with Dvořák’s three last symphonies in concerts between 21 and 29 February, performing the four (numbered) symphonies of Ives within one week is a feast in itself – let alone maintaining such stupendous level of inspiration and musicianship throughout the cycle.

While the title of the new DG release is disputable, given the absence of A Symphony: New England Holidays (1897-1913), it is nevertheless quite an achievement.

The four symphonies recorded here convey a huge arch of stylistic development Ives went through during that twenty-five-year period. While the First still stems from its European forbearers, the Fourth inhabits a whole new musical realm, looking forward to the modernism of the latter half of the twentieth century.

Ives’s first two symphonies were written concurrently, alongside Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day, the finale of Holidays Symphony. Interestingly, the two symphonies inhabit very different musical universes.

Symphony No. 1 in D minor (1898-1902) is an absolute charmer. It is the most conventional one of the four, obviously influenced by Dvořák’s New World Symphony (1893), with echoes of Tchaikovsky, Janáček and maybe even Schubert ringing in the distance. Cast in four movements and scored for a standard symphonic ensemble, it is a fairy unproblematic piece to program.

Still, Ives’s First is not the most usual thing to encounter, neither on disc nor in the concert hall. Overshadowed by the more advanced Symphony No. 2 (1897-1902/1910). However, an enthusiastic performance reveals that there’s more in the First than meets the eye.

The opening movement, with its lyrical first subject launching the music from the very first bar, is an uplifting symphonic statement, with captivating sweep à la Tchaikovsky. However, there is something quintessentially Ivesian in the way the phrases are shaped, not to mention the sublime matter-of-factness, shunning all cheap pathos.

The spiritual core of the symphony manifests itself in the achingly beautiful second movement. Lead by solo cor anglais, the movement unfolds gracefully, clad in luminous sonorities. The example of Dvořák is tangible, reflected through an ever-Ivesian looking glass, to a fascinating effect.

The brief scherzo mixes agile strings and airy winds into a fabulous dance, embracing a wide range of influences from Schubert on, with fleeting similarities to Sibelius’s dance-rooted works.

It is the Allegro molto finale that rings the pre-echoes of Ives’s later music in the most resounding manner. While the musical material is still fairy conventional, Ives’s tendency to superimpose separate musical streams begins to manifest itself in the layers of the closing movement.

On the final pages, cymbals and snare drum join the fabric, bringing the symphony to its resounding close.

The LA Phil and Dudamel embrace Ives’s first symphonic entity wholeheartedly, delivering a powerful performance, full of vigor and spirit. As a whole, the symphony sounds incredibly fresh, clad in multitude of fine detail.

Gustavo Dudamel conduts LA Phil. © Craig T. Mathew and Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging

The Symphony No. 2 is the best-known among the cycle. Championed by Leonard Bernstein, who made two audio and one video recording of the score, the five-movement symphony stands halfway between the European symphonic tradition and the discoveries of the New World.

While there is a lot of Brahms in the symphony, most notably in the brief fourth movement, Ives employs hymn tunes and other musical objects trouvés with resplendent imagination throughout the symphony.

The first two movements constitute a whole, serving as a slow movement and a spirited allegro, somewhat in the manner of the first part of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (1902-03). Together they constitute a well-balanced entity.

At the heart of the symphony lies the beautiful Adagio cantabile. A celebration of the symphonic sound distilled into wondrous threads of song-like beauty, the movement is an oasis of sonorous enchantment.

The Second Symphony closes with a ravishing Allegro molto vivace. In the course of ten minutes, Ives builds a musical collage par excellence, with different musics co-existing and colliding in a joyous feast of sound. The finale climaxes with a stupendous coda, a musical mass going critical and bursting into one blast of sound, brought to an abrupt end by the closing brass chord.

Subtitled The Camp Meeting, Symphony No. 3 (1908-10) might be viewed as a Berliozian take on the concept of symphony. While there is no detailed programme, each movement bears a descriptive title, reflected in the music itself.

Scored for chamber orchestra and cast in three movements, the Third Symphony is the most compact of Ives’s takes on the medium. In the manner of Sibelius’s Third Symphony (1906-07), it is a transitory work. Instead of the orchestral tour-de-force of the Second Symphony, The Camp Meeting is a more sublime reflection of orchestral dramaturgy.

The twenty-minute symphony stems from musical memories of Ives’s childhood, from the graceful nostalgia of Old Folk’s Gathering to the upbeat scherzo of Children’s Day. Concluding with a contemplative ritual of Communion, with offstage bells signaling Ite missa est, the Third Symphony is a case in point of the particular yielding to the universal.

Rumor has it, that Mahler had acquired a copy of the score and planned to premiere the symphony with the New York Philharmonic. Sadly, Mahler’s death intervened, and the score lingered unperformed for four decades, until Lou Harrison conducted the belated premiere in 1946, followed by a radio first under the baton of Bernard Herrmann. The symphony was lauded with the Pulitzer Prize.

On the DG disc, Dudamel and the LA Phil switch the gear admirably with the transition form the sonic blast of the Second Symphony to the more reflective Third. The three musical tabelaux are sounded with wondrous sensitivity and picturesque vividness, resulting in almost cinematographic experience, somewhat akin to Gustav Holst’s The Planets (1914-16).

Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
© Dustin Downing

No matter how wonderful the first three symphonies are, none of them prepares the listener for the sheer mayhem of invention unleashed in Symphony No. 4 (1910-24), Ives’s magnum opus. While there are four movements with a total duration of circa thirty minutes, everything else in this symphony is so profoundly unconventional that the piece stretches the boundaries of the symphonic form towards unforeseen sounding realms.

Scored for vast forces of a large orchestra, with extended percussion section, organ and solo piano, augmented with chorus in the outer movements, and calling forth two conductors, the symphony yields to Mahlerian proportions, and beyond.

The opening Prelude is built on hymn tunes, sung by full chorus, with refrains provided by the orchestra and the solo piano. Within the four-minute movement, a series of dazzling textures are introduced, to a wondrous effect.

The ensuing Comedy contains some of the wildest music Ives ever wrote. A stupendous collage of different musics are superimposed, layer upon layer, to create an unhindered sonic flood, a next level Central Park in the Dark (1906/1936) or Putnam’s Camp (1911-12). Hymn-tunes, jazz and military bands join in a cataclysm of sound, overflowing in its sheer mass of volume, timbre and space.

In contrast, the Fugue third movement is rooted in translucent counterpoint, so marvellously Ivesian, yet paying homage to the deeply-rooted history of the contrapuntal art. The orchestral textures are coloured by the organ, woven into the gorgeous fabric of the music.

Emerging from the percussion section, a summa Finale begins to take shape. The music is again layered, but this time the textures are unveiled with transparency akin to the third movement. A wordless chorus joins, linking the Finale to Debussy’s Sirens (1897-99) and Holst’s Neptune. With the soaring vocalise lines, the Fourth Symphony gazes towards a new horizon beyond.

With all of its rhythmic complexity, quarter-tone harmonies, and massive forces dispersed in space, it is no surprise that the only the first two movements were performed in Ives’s lifetime. The first complete performance, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, finally happened in 1965, followed by a premiere recording.

Given that despite complete, Ives’s autograph score is not performable as such, due to its sketchy nature. For almost fifty years, the edition prepared for the premiere was the only printed one available. In 2011, Charles Ives Society issued the first critical edition which included a new performing version as well.

Even with a proper edition available, the Fourth Symphony provides a huge challenge for both its performers and the venue. Making full use of the Disney Hall’s spatial potential, the LA Phil, joined by the fabulous Los Angeles Master Chorale, with Dudamel and Marta Gardolińska sharing the podium, the new recording is a towering achievement.

While no recording can capture the full scope of a live performance of this truly one-of-a-kind symphony, this rapturous account comes probably the closest one can simply get to that in-hall experience. Be it the soaring fugal lines of the third movement, or the collisions of the second, the massed musicians of the LA Phil have achieved a peerless mastery over the score. The Master Chorale convey astonishing takes on both hymns, The Watchman sung in the Prelude and Bethany vocalized in the Finale.

As a podium team, Dudamel and Gandolińska have a firm grasp on the myriad of challenges presented by the score, thus enabling their ensembles deliver a performance of unbelievable intensity and virtuoso craft.

Gustavo Dudamel and LA Phil in action at Walt Disney Concert Hall. © Dustin Downing

Well recorded by the DG team, the symphonies are clad in focused, yet spacious sonics, enhanced by the 24 bit / 96 kHz mastering.

Absolutely essential in the 20th century narrative, the Ives symphonies should be embedded into our repertory as equals to Mahler and Sibelius. In addition to being ravishing pieces of their own right, they are also everlasting heralds of future, venturing into the farthest reaches of the sounding universe. With a recording like this, the Ives symphonies are truly come.   

Los Angeles Philharmonic

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

Los Angeles Master Chorale

Marta Gandolińska, conductor

Charles Ives: Symphony No. 1 in D minor (1898-1902)

Charles Ives: Symphony No. 2 (1897-1902/1910)

Charles Ives: Symphony No. 3 ”The Camp Meeting” (1908-10)

Charles Ives: Symphony No. 4 (1910-24)

Recorded at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, 20-29 February 2020

Deutsche Grammophon 4839505 (2020), Digital download

© Jari Kallio

”If you know how you can navigate yourself, then you know how to navigate the world” – interview with Kristjan Järvi

Kristjan Järvi photographed by © Siiri Kumari

Times have been interesting for the conductor and composer Kristjan Järvi of late. He has just finished a festival tour with his orchestra, the Baltic Sea Philharmonic, performing a live incarnation of his new studio album, Nordic Escapes (2020). 

The album, recorded with the musicians of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic, the London Symphony orchestra and the Nordic Pulse Ensemble, with violinist David Nebel and vocalist Liisi Koikson as soloists, is a portrayal of the North, both as a geographical entity and an idea. 

”The North I am talking about is a vast area from Iceland to Estonia, all the way to the Russian border, and beyond to Karelia. This North is almost naïve, very beautiful and rough-on-the-edges. It’s not Disneyland beauty, it’s raw”, says Järvi as we speak via Zoom between our residencies in Estonia and Finland. 

Back in Estonia after four decades in the USA, where the musical family immigrated from what was then Soviet-Estonia, Järvi has found himself in a paradise. Residing at his wife’s summer house with his family, cat included, he enjoys the rustic luxuries of a sauna, and an orchard of apple trees and raspberries.

”I’ve turned into a country-boy! We’re basically on the beach. Not lookin at TV or your phone, you kind of forget that there’s anything else in the world. You have everything here. You don’t have to travel to Mallorca, this is like a complete paradise for me.

And that’s also what this album is about. I wanted to express something that has been quite confused and misunderstood by many people, who only try to look at me by what I do on the podium. 

Conducting is a form of expression that has many facets to it, but this is probably one of those facets which nobody has ever considered. To everybody that’s confused out there, this is who I am.”

For over twenty five years, Järvi has been making music with both his own ensembles and renowned orchestras, starting with his tenure as the Assistant Conductor to Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1998 to 2000. 

”I started creating my own bands and all sorts of hybrid ensembles, like the Absolute Ensemble, when I was studying in New York in the mid-nineties. And it was based on a few ingredients; first of all friendship. It was a good hang, people who believed in the same idea. Even if you couldn’t play, you were still part of the gang. 

It was more about the freedom of creativity. People who were awesome classical musicians, people who were awesome jazz musicians, people who could read music and people who couldn’t, people who could do arrangements, people who could use the computer and people who couldn’t. There was all sorts of folks. In a way that idea has remained with me ever since.

There was a moment I could have said, listen, I’ll just do electronica and hiphop, but I didn’t want to do it, because I got some chances to conduct orchestras, which I thought was also interesting and cool, and kind of a big deal.

And if Esa-Pekka Salonen says ’come and do an audition to become an Assistant Conductor for the LA Phil,’ I wasn’t going to say, hey thanks buddy, but no thanks. 

It was kind of sequential things in my life that guided me, from one thing to another. And I let it go with the low. I enjoyed conducting, and there became more and more things I was offered to do. And that had a natural progression.” 

Kristjan Järvi and the Baltic Sea Philharmonic performing Nordic Escapes at the 2020 Merano Music Festival on 10 September. © Damian Pertoll

From 2000 to 2004 Järvi was the Chief Conductor of the NorrlandsOperan, followed by a five-year tenure as the Music Director of the Tonkünstler Orchestra in Vienna from 2004 to 2009. 

”With the Tonkünstler Orchestra, I started this Tonkünstler Plugged In series, where the guests or soloists were always amplified, while the orchestra was playing acoustical. We brought in lights and did crazy things. It is still their most successful series in Vienna, although now they’re buying in products. 

Even though people liked it, and the management was intrigued that people dug it, they didn’t really get it. The stuff I’ve done with, for example, the London Symphony Orchestra, and we’ve done a lot of crazy stuff together, they actually completely dug it, and the marketing department was like ’let’s have more of this’. But the misunderstanding prevails that there’s this pile of crossover where all that cheesy stuff goes and another where the serious stuff goes. 

And I love to be right in the middle. For me there’s only one place the line stops and starts and that’s quality; tasteful, meaningful and conceptually clear things. Like for example the Balkan Fever, which was conceptually very clear, clean and super-big quality. 

There’s so much stuff, like orchestral covers of bands like ABBA and AC/DC, and they think I’m doing the same stuff, but I am not. I think that stuff is completely superficial. And somehow I get confused with this crappy crossover-stuff. 

My new album is not so much a statement to clear the air, but just a natural evolution of things coming round full circle to complete the picture who is this weirdo Kristjan Järvi.”

As we talk about influences and collaborations, the names of Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, John Adams and Giya Kanceli appear alongside Bryce Dessner and the Icelandic band Múm. 

”If I didn’t have that background, I wouldn’t have been able to do this album. Also I wouldn’t have been able to do this album if Esa-Pekka Salonen wasn’t in my life. It’s all those components, with the fact that I come from a conducting family. ”

His father Neeme Järvi and brother Paavo Järvi are household names in classical music circles. Both known for their advocacy of both the standard repertoire and lesser know works, they have still worked on a fairly traditional ground in comparison to Kristjan. 

”My excitement comes from my whole journey, New York, LA, Michigan, Miami, those are all places that I’ve picked up a lot of really good stuff. Actually, America is a great place, and also Estonia is a great place and all the other places too, if you take from them the things you truly intuitively are drawn into. Intuitively, not intellectually. So Nordic Escapes is also album that is built on intuition. 

And a lot of times people say they’ve tried to clarify things to themselves so they can measure up to someone else’s expectations. Well, this is an album that does exactly the opposite: I try to make sense of myself, so I can measure up to my own expectations. 

And honestly that’s why I love to be here in Estonia again. It feels truly like this is my place, my Nordic Escape.”

Kristjan Järvi and the Baltic Sea Philharmonic performing Nordic Escapes at the 2020 Usedomer Festival on 12 September. © Peter Adamik

Järvi is right to point out the problematic nature of the term crossover. In marketing and media, it is often used to label everything that defies traditional categories, regardless to the actual substance. 

If we dig deep into the very root of crossover, we come across with Leonard Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (1949), Gershwin’s An American in Paris (1928), Igor Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto (1945) andthe music of Reich, Glass, Béla Bartók and Claude Debussy, not to mention each and every composer quoting folk music in their works over the centuries.

It should also be kept in mind, that in Leipzig, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote and performed music for the church and the coffee houses as well. 

”Just think about the way the Brandenburg Concertos were created. He said basically who do we have playing and made it sound great anyway, by holding into the highest ideals and being honest and that was it. Why we love Bach and say his music is perfect is because he totally distilled all the bullshit out of it. 

And that’s why you can arrange Bach backwards and forwards and play it with any instruments and it still sounds good. It’s organic.

In similar way, you can take really any piece by Mozart, and is impressive that just used his ear. He was interested in what sounded good not what somebody else thought it should be. Of course, he had a solid technique. 

You can study all these theory books telling about how you can’t have parallel fifths and so forth, but that’s like operating on a patient without any use of your brain or intuition or even empathy about the patient you are operating. It’s like operating on a dummy.” 

The seven original tracks on Nordic Escapes look to various directions. One can hear echoes of Pärt, Reich, Glass and Adams here and there, alongside electronica and world music, such as the Finnish group Värttinä. 

”A lot of these titles like Aurora and Nebula have double meanings. Pöhjaneitsi (Nordic Maiden) is not a girl but an idea. Runic Prayer is definitely like a ritual, this is already heading into the direction of Värttinä. 

I never really saw a difference between Värttinä and Wagner. And a lot of people have a huge problem with that statement I just made. I love Wagner, but I also love Värttinä. These are basically the same story told in a different ways.

I also used some vocals by Liisi Koikson. She sings one song, but I mostly use her voice as an instrumental vocal. I think that is very specifically, esthetically something that does not exist in any other place than the Nordic Countries. You just put one line somewhere and people ask what instrument is that. 

And I realized, subconsciously, that’s why we love things like Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76) by Steve Reich. Because it’s like wow, she’s not singing, she’s vocalizing, and wait a minute, that’s so beautiful!”

As the Chief Conductor of the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra from 2012 to 2018, Järvi performed and recorded several works by Reich. In 2016, celebrating the composer’s eightieth birthday, he conducted an all-Reich programme with the London Symphony Orchestra and Synergy Vocals at the Barbican.  

Reich at 80: Kristjan Järvi onstage at the Barbican Hall with Steve Reich, the London Symphony Orchestra and Synergy Vocals. © Jari Kallio

”I can’t believe that Reich and all these other guys are so old. They seem, to me, so vibrant and so unbelievably fresh. Last year we played (Reich’s) Music for Ensemble and Orchestra (2018) with the Baltic Sea Philharmonic. We memorize all our programs, and I can’t believe we memorized that piece, because it changes so little, and if you miss it, you miss it. 

But that’s where you have to not worry about missing it, because your intuition will never ever fail you. There’s the possibility to let go, not just go with the flow, but know that you’ll going to be guided into the right place because of the collective energy and your collective brain. 

It creates this one quantum field which makes it right. And physics is beginning to prove this. There is no distance between this place and the other side of the universe, but this is one quantum field. And there is no time, and there is actually no space. 

I know this can seem far-fetched to a lot of people. But it’s only because we’ve been taught in a certain way. But many of my Nordic friends say that of course it’s like that. 

Intuitively, we create form, because we are one hundred per cent geometrically guided beings. Every single thing we build, the intuition guides us to create.”

Among all those remarkable composers and musicians Järvi has collaborated with over the years, Joe Zawinul has been the one closest to a father-figure.  

”Now, I’m a big fan of Weather Report and what they did back in the seventies. It wasn’t jazz, it wasn’t funk, it wasn’t R&B. It was really, really complex, chromatic and diatonic at the same time. It had immense groove. It had all sorts of world music influences, mostly African and Asian, with so many collaborations. 

Joe Zawinul was a guy who was born in Vienna and went to New York. He got offered a job as Ella Fitzgerald’s big band leader. They offered him five thousand dollars a week, that’s like getting a fifty thousand a week now, and he refused that. 

He refused it because his wife to him ’if you take this job you can get a penthouse on Park Avenue, bu you never going to be Joe Zawinul’.

When I was in Vienna with Tonkünstler Orchestra, I went to his club Birdland. And I said to him, ’I love your stuff and you’ve been my hero all my life, is there a chance we could do anything together?’. And he wound up being like almost a father-figure. 

When we were in the process of recording his last album Absolute Zawinul with my group, he passed away. I felt like I lost a part of me, because he was the one I felt most able to relate with, because he didn’t have these boundaries. He could play Brahms Haydn Variations with Friedrich Gulda as well as jam with Miles Davis.

We have some people like that in the world these days. But generally we’re competing with this misinformation-type of situation: Crossover makes a lot of money, so let’s put up some lighting and some kind of bullshit and sell it fast. It’s not going to have longevity, but we’ll make a lot of money. Basically that’s not my bag. Success based on money is not success at all.” 

Kristjan Järvi portrait by © Siiri Kumari

The idea of sharing ideas and exchanging musical experiences is vital to Järvi’s creative work. 

We create a vehicle for inspiration and thoughtfulness by understanding that this is compassion not competing. I think competition has basically ruined the world because it’s lead by the wrong values. 

I’m not competing for having more money, because I cheat better, or create more bullshit, so I can confuse you better. 

Actually this recording is all about honesty and kinda taking your clothes off and just saying, look I’m pretty happy what I’ve got and everybody else should be very very happy for what they got, because it is not any less, it’s actually maybe even more. 

And I hope my world is familiar to may others and they will be inspired enough to spin something off from this.”  

Järvi invites his listeners to become active participants and embrace their subjective experience with the new album. 

”I think we should be individually be strong enough to have a subjective opinion and go with it. We live in this fragile world, where I don’t know anything until I hear it from you. Thank god we are stubborn and individualistic here in Estonia. 

On Nordic Escapes, I’ve put all of these soundscape-tape things there. It depends on the listener, some people might rear like static electricity, radio waves others as ocean, the trees and the wind. It is done so that you can personalize this album to yourself. I think it is many people’s story.

I look at life like this: The whole universe resides in us. The world we see out there, is a personal and a very perceptive, individual, subjective reality that everybody holds in themselves. It’s not the kind of communal, let’s go to out to the world kind of thing. 

It is actually my world and it is your world. And we create this world every single second that we are alive. You can be on the top of the of the world, if you are on the top inside, excited, or you can take yourself down into the depths of hell. If you know how you can navigate yourself, then you know how to navigate the world. ”  

There are also many ways to navigate through the new album. Its seven tracks form an extended arch, a universe of orchestral music, electronic soundscapes and translucent vocal lines. As an epilogue, a Robot Koch remix of Nebula closes the album. 

”This album is a journey, if you want it to be, but you can take single pieces out of it as well. I wrote the first piece, In Horizons on a day before our daughter was born. And it’s called In Horizons,because there is not only one horizon, but there’s your understanding of horizon and my understanding of horizon. 

The Nordic Pulse journey ends with Kirbu Epiphany, with ’wow, that’s it’. That is as simple and beautiful as life is.

The slogan for the album is Perception is reality. And I’m truly glad that I’ve experienced this Corona situation here in Estonia, because it would have probably been a whole different thing, if I’d been in Florida or New York. Here it all felt like being contained in a bubble of Shangri-La.”

Nordic Escapes album cover. © Modern Recordings

As we talk about bubbles and dreams, it becomes apparent that Järvi does not believe in the common, clear-cut distinction between reality and fantasy. 

”Where you go when you go to sleep? I look forward to sleep, because I go on an adventure every time. And that’s where we loose a lot of people. 

If you think about all the things we are afraid of, most of them did not exist before we were afraid of them. We’ve always, generationally, build this ball of fear. And I feel that by now, it has become so huge that everybody is afraid of something.

Or think about the film Inception (2010), we’re not the only ones thinking about this. If Christopher Nolan is constantly dealing with this topic, that should be something that is more in the forefront of our imagination and understanding. It is not just an idea: Everything we can come up with as an idea, is already reality. 

Everything in the world becomes from collective agreement: the dollar is the king, Berlin Philharmonic is the best orchestra in the world or Beethoven is a God that walked among us. I don’t believe in the first one,  whereas the second one could be true. But it’s the third one, I actually do believe is true.” 

© Jari Kallio

From Stravinsky ritual to Hindemith rarity, with Karita Mattila singing Wagner – A wondrous evening with FRSO and Lintu

Soprano Karita Mattila, Chief Conductor Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra onsage at the Music Centre on Wednesday. © Jari Kallio

With their 20/21 season launched last week, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Hannu Lintu returned to the Helsinki Music Centre stage on Wednesday and Thursday for their second programme, featuring another well-put-together playlist. 

Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920) might just be the most fascinating Igor Stravinsky score. Among the series of masterpieces by the twentieth century giant, it holds an unique place. Written simultaneously with Pulcinella (1919-20), heard at the season opening last week, Symphonies of Winds inhabits a universe light years apart. Yet, both works are unmistakably Stravinskyan in their construction and sounding detail.

Begun as a memorial to Claude Debussy, to whom the score is dedicated, the musical roots of the piece lie in a chordal sequence penned by Stravinsky as an initial response to the news of the passing of his colleague, friend and musical father-figure.

While the relationship between Stravinsky and Debussy was by no means an uncomplicated one, it was a deeply meaningful one. It should be noted that the first private run-through of Le Sacre du printemps (1911-13) took place with the two composers hammering it on keyboards. Debussy was an ardent supporter of the score, although he later sought to distance himself from its success, as it went to overshadow his Jeux (1912-13), premiered by Ballets Russes just two weeks ahead of Sacre.

In any case, Debussy’s passing evoked a profound and sincere sense of loss in Stravinsky’s psyche, leading to the creation of the first of his many in memoriams, the dazzling Symphonies of Wind Instruments.

There is no clear predecessor, neither successor for this truly one-of-a-kind score within the whole Stravinsky oeuvre. Its archaic nature links it to Sacre, somewhat, but the differences between the two works are more substantial than their similarities. In similar manner, the wind textures in Symphonies of Winds can be seen as precursors to those in Symphony of Psalms (1930/1948), but here too, the two works bear substantial differences too.

Pointed out by Richard Taruskin, the underlying ritualistic structure of Symphonies of Winds might have been rooted in Orthodox chant. Thus the score would be Stravinsky’s first forays back into his religious roots.

Be that as it may, Symphonies of Winds does convey the sense of ritual, in the guise of a recurring chorale, interspersed by passages of astounding musical invention. Scored for twenty-or-so winds players, there are highly unusual sonorities at play,

The 1921 London premiere, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky, was not an unanimous success. However, as years passed, Symphonies of Wind instruments became a cherished item among the postwar modernism, championed by Pierre Boulez et al. 

In Stravinsky’s own words, the score is ”devoid of all elements which infallibly appeal to the ordinary listener”. Its combination of quasi-static chorale sections and passages of musical cubism yield to a truly one-of-a-kind musical entity. Not even Stravinsky’s own subsequent wind pieces, Octet (1922-23) and Concert for Piano and Wind Instruments (1923-24/1950) come close to its unique character. 

In terms of performance, Symphonies of Wind Instruments provides splendid challenges. The conductor must have an immaculate sense of architecture in order to provide continuity into the series of dream-like passages. To make the textures intelligible, balance must be perfectly fine-tuned for each measure. When thing click, Symphonies of Wind Instruments soars.

Hannu Lintu and the FRSO winds ready for Stravinsky. © Jari Kallio

And things did click with Lintu and the FRSO winds on Wednesday. Stravinsky’s score was dressed in luminous sounding garb, with the ingenious harmonic colours shining their otherworldly light through the marvellously transparent textures. Beautifully paced by Lintu, the members of the FRSO provided a near-perfect realization of this extremely challenging score. An opening to remember!

Wesendonck-Lieder (1857-58) is, in many ways, a fascinating offshoot from Richard Wagner’s creative process leading up to Tristan und Isolde (1857-59). The five poems by Mathilde Wesendonck were inspired by ideas conveyed in Wagner’s libretto. In his turn, Wagner set them to music, at least partly, as sketches for the score of Tristan

Musically, the third and fifth songs, Im Treibhaus and Träume, are probably the most interesting ones. A portrait of yearning and spiritual imprisonment, Im Treibhaus also became the musical source for the for the Prelude of the third act of Tristan

Due to the Tristan connection it is probably not possible to hear Im Treibhaus as a song of its own right, but that may just be the key to it. In addition, it should be noted that Bernard Herrmann quoted this music in his score to Vertigo (1958), thus extending the chain of associations even further. 

In similar manner, Träume is based on material that reappears in the love-night second act of Tristan. Although musically independent, the three other songs share the mood of the two Tristan studies, resulting in a Schopenhauerian a narrative. 

Originally scored for voice and piano, only the last song was orchestrated by Wagner. There are several orchestral versions of the four other songs available, but they are most often performed in instrumental arrangements by Felix Mottl. In this guise the cycle was heard also at the Music Centre, with soprano Karita Mattila as soloist. 

As a superb Wagnerian, Mattila conveyed the vocal line with spell-like vividness. Attuned to the text, she lived the songs with sublime dramaturgy. Combined with her immaculate musicality, superbly supported by Lintu and the FRSO, this was one of the most convincing performances of these songs I’ve encountered in concert. As a matter of fact, I don’t there are many equals among the recorded legacy either. 

As a conclusion to the wonderful evening, Lintu and the FRSO delivered an astounding performance of Paul Hindemith’s riotously stunning Konzertmusik, Op. 56 (1930). Scored for an unusual combination of strings and brass, the twenty-minute score is cast in two movements, each further divided into clear-cut sub-sections, following a symphony scheme.

Konzertmusik is launched with an in-you-face opening, marked mit Kraft in the score. The whole orchestra is engaged in an incessant musical flow, a sonic tidal wave. Contrasted by an ensuing slow section, the first movement is brought to its fabulous close.

The second movement is a fugal mixture of the characteristics of a symphonic scherzo and finale. Among the multi-layered material, there are intriguing solo passages for trombone and trumpet, respectively, as well as stunning ensemble textures. 

In this musical thunderstorm, echoes of jazz can be heard among the splendid multitude of Hindemith’s invention. In the manner worthy of Sibelius, the finale stems organically from the scherzo, providing a ravishing conclusion. 

Having know the score for thirty years, this was the first time I got to hear this brilliant piece in concert. And that sure was worth the wait. Lintu and the FRSO musicians devoted themselves wholeheartedly to the score, delivering a truly remarkable performance. 

Hindemith’s riveting Konzertmusik with Hannu Lintu and the FRSO strings and brass.
© Jari Kallio

The combination of fierce sonic energy and detailed execution of detail would have made Hindemith proud. The inherent flame of the music was set alight with apt fury, balanced by the ever-elaborate control of the musical line. With a performance like this one is bound to ask, why on Earth does Hindemith get so few outings. For his music is a veritable treasure chest. Maybe we have a new beginning here?

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Hannu Lintu, conductor

Karita Mattila, soprano    

               

Igor Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920)

Richard Wagner: Wesendonck-lieder, WWV 91 (1857-58)

Paul Hindemith Konzertmusik, Op. 50 (1930) for strings and brass

Music Centre, Helsinki

Wednesday 9 September, 8 pm

© Jari Kallio

Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic launch 20/21 with inspired innovation

Susanna Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic at the Music Centre stage on Tuesday. © Jari Kallio

Latest in the series of new beginnings, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra launched its autumn season with Chief Conductor Susanna Mälkki at the Helsinki Music Centre on Tuesday evening, with repeats ahead on Thursday and Friday.

As often with Mälkki, the orchestra demonstrated once again the importance of innovative programming alongside top-class playing. While safety distances limit the maximum of players to fifty at the Music Centre stage, the Helsinki Philharmonic came up with a programme quintessentially their own.

Three pieces by Sibelius were paired with Richard Strauss’s early Serenade for Winds, Op. 7 (1881), Toru Takemitsu’s astonishing Voice (1971) for solo flute and Sergei Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, Op. 25 (1916-17), to form an insightful whole.

The evening began with Sibelius’s Impromptu for string orchestra (1903/1904). For the six-minute string piece, two piano Impromptus from an earlier opus were recycled by Sibelius, who needed material for an orchestral concert in Turku in 1894. Cast in a straightforward ABA-form, the string orchestra version is a charming little gem.

Together with Mälkki, the Helsinki Philharmonic strings gave an absolutely beautiful performance of the Impromptu. Clad in fine detail, with a lovely contrast between the slow outer sections and the upbeat middle one. As a small detail, it should be noted that the B-A transition on a double bass pedal point was the most charming thing.

Strauss’s youthful Serenade, in turn, provided the brass section its moment to shine. The ten-minute piece by a seventeen-year-old composer displays a mastery of orchestration, with its delicate use of duple winds, a double bassoon and four horns.

While being a delightful piece of its own right, the Serenade is also a fascinating precursor to Strauss’s late wind music. Not too often heard, it was a splendid thing to include, especially regarding to the uplifting performance by the Helsinki Philharmonic winds.

As a centerpiece, Sibelius’s marvellous melodrama Skogsrået (The Wood Nymph, 1895) was heard. Scored for reciter, string orchestra, piano and horns, the melodrama is a condensed version of the tone poem (or ballad), scored for a full orchestra. In addition to reduced scoring, the melodrama is also significantly shorter, lasting less than fifteen minutes.

It is unclear which of the two versions came first, but I’m inclined to think that the melodrama was adapted from the orchestral score. Be that as it may, both versions are among the most moving music Sibelius wrote as a young man.

Skogsrået sets a text by Viktor Rydberg, a ballad of a young hero enthralled by a wood nymph. Dressed in somewhat Wagnerian orchestral guise, Sibelius’s score bears spellbinding charm. The piano part aptly substitutes the woodwind section, with the horns providing colour and pedal point. The string scoring is imaginative, featuring a haunting cello part in the middle section.

The spoken text was delivered with sublime dramaturgy by Rabbe Smedlund, well-balanced with the orchestra. The Helsinki Philharmonic performed with drama and dedication, yielding to a gripping experience. Due to the unforgiving bareness of Sibelius’s orchestration, some near misses in the horn parts could be detected on a couple of occasions, but in a spirited performance, these were quickly forgotten.

Performing The Wood Nymph. © Jari Kallio

Toru Takemitsu was one of the most interesting composers of the postwar 20th century. His style was an unique mixture of European modernism and Japanese tradition. Among his varied output, Takemitsu wrote a wonderful series of pieces for solo instruments, including the dazzling Voice for solo flute.

Written in s single day for Aurelè Nicolet, Voice employs extended playing techniques, requiring the player to use various vocalizations as well, based on a short text from Handmade Proverbs by Shuzo Takiguchi.

At Musiikkitalo, Jenny Villanen’s compelling performance was accompanied by Natasha Lommi’s choreography, admirably rooted in the music itself.

Among the COVID-19 programmes, Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony seems to enjoy a deserved popularity. It is one of those pieces that never fails to put a smile on one’s face, not even on a masked one. Still, it is by no means a routine score. In fact, to make the piece shine, transparency and rhythmic agility are both key issues.

As unbelievable as it seems, I haven’t heard the Classical Symphony in concert for over twenty five years. My previous account was a smashing one by Avanti! on a summer tour, conducted by the young Esa-Pekka Salonen.

On Tuesday, Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic treated their first night audience with a rousing performance. Quirky and elegant, Prokofiev’s surreal reinvention of the 18th century was sounded with mischievous joie de vivre, without compromising the nuanced care of detail.

As a closure, Sibelius’s Cassazione, Op. 6 (1904/1905) was a bit overshadowed by the ravishing Prokofiev symphony. Nevertheless, this appealing tableau for flutes, clarinets, brass, timpani and strings was a happy encounter too.

Originally written as a filler for the premiere of the first version of the Violin Concerto, Op. 47 (1903-04), Cassazione was not met with enthusiasm by critics. Sibelius subsequently revised the score in 1905, but inscribed the words ”bör omarbetas” (”to be reworked”) on the title page. However, other projects took precedence, and the score remained as it was.

While somewhat sketchy and uneven, Cassazione is not mere pièce d’occasion. Rather, it is a potential, which, completed by the listener’s imagination, comes off quite well, when performed with commitment. And that was precisely what Mälkki and the orchestra did.

Susanna Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic.
© Jari Kallio

With Cassazione, the programme was completed in full circle. Hearing Sibelius with the unmatched tradition of the Helsinki Philharmonic, coupled with intriguing repertoire, was something truly heartwarming.

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Susanna Mälkki, conductor

Jenny Villanen, flute

Natasha Lommi, dance and choreography

Rabbe Smedlund, narrator

Jean Sibelius: Impromptu for string orchestra (1893/1894)

Richard Strauss: Serenade for Winds in E flat Major, Op. 7 (1881)

Jean Sibelius: The Wood Nymph, Op. 15 (1895) – melodrama

Toru Takemitsu: Voice (1971) for solo flute

Sergei Prokofiev: Classical Symphony in D Major, Op. 25 (1916-17)

Jean Sibelius: Cassazione, Op. 6 (1904/1905) for orchestra

Music Centre, Helsinki

Tuesday 8 September, 6 pm

© Jari Kallio

Covid fan tutte – Entertaining time-piece with Salonen and an all-Star cast

COVID-19 looming onstage. © Stefan Bremer

When the Finnish National Operan and Ballet first announced Covid fan tutte, a contemporary adaptation of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s timeless opera buffa Così fan tutte, KV 588 (1789-90), I must admit of being somewhat skeptical.

However, the more I though about it, the more promising the project started to appear. The new libretto was to be written by Minna Lindgren, a formidable writer and journalist with profound knowledge and an ever-apt sense of irony.

Onstage there would be a cast of marvellous stature, Finnish singers on the top of their game, now stranded in their homeland due COVID-19 countermeasures. And in the pit, the FNOB Artistic Partner Esa-Pekka Salonen would be conducting the splendid house orchestra and chorus.

Originally, this August-September slot was reserved for Die Walküre (1854-56), the next installment of the new FNOB production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (1852-74), augured with Das Rheingold (1852-54) in August 2019, with Salonen conducting. The initital plan was to stage Die Walküre in April, but due lockdown, the production was first postponed until this fall, and then again until next January, with Susanna Mälkki at the helm.

With Die Walküre gone, the FNOB was in search for a new season opening that would meet the both the safety measures and audience expectations. While there were many ways to play it safe with standard repertoire, the house decided upon taking a risk with a time-piece, tailor-made for the occasion.

Yet, time was the luxury the creative team was short of. The new concept needed to be developed within one month in the spring, thus limiting the options available. Thus it was decided that rewriting one of the staples of the repertoire was the goal to pursue. Though doable, crafting a whole new libretto, in thematically, literally and musically intelligible guise, within one month was by no means an easy task.

In course of the process, Lindgren ventured occasionally outside Così, in order to find suitable musical material for to adapt. Therefore, we get to hear an account of the Coronavirus case statistics set to Leporello’s Catalogue Aria from Don Giovanni, KV 527 (1787) and encounter a mask-wearing interviewee taking his cue from the dumbstruck Papageno from the first act of Die Zauberflöte, KV 620 (1791).

”Mozart was a mischievous and the most imaginative person, who was not bound by conventions. He was a renewer. And I’m convinced that he would have been thrilled to join this production, given that many of his operas, such as The Marriage of Figaro, are based on contemporary subjects. I say this with the same authority as anyone, because we cannot really know, but I’m still sure of it”, Salonen said in the FNOB press conference back in August.

FNOB Artistic Partner Esa-Pekka Salonen.
© Veikko Kähkönen

Squeezing a two-act opera into an hour-and-a-half overall scheme also meant significant cuts, including, most notably, the clear-cut omission of original recitatives.

”I know this will upset many people, but I really can’t stand secco recitatives. I’ve always found them boring. In The Magic Flute, whenever I hear Papageno announce himself ’Ja, ich bin der Vogelfängler’ I feel I could just sink underfround. And for once I had the license from the Artistic Director to say to Minna that this time we would not have a single recitative. That was so liberating.”

As a result, Covid fan tutte was constructed ”a series of scenes from the Corona-spring”. Filled with references to the COVID-19-related events and how they were perceived through the Finnish media, the opera is, in its essence an absurdist comedy.

”That is, of course, an age-old means to survive in a crisis. The idea is to take a monster, be it COVID-19 or Hitler and use comedy as means to disarm the monster in the manner of Mel Brooks. This doesn’t mean that we would not acknowledge the seriousness of the pandemic. Instead we aim to provide the people with tools to cope with the situation. And here we had an unique chance to hold a mirror against ourselves under these times.”

Sung in Finnish, Covid fan tutte is, in its essence, a Finnish commentary on the pandemic. Some of its dramaturgy and imagery is quintessentially Finnish, whereas many elements do carry a more universal meaning. To some extent, the production is intelligible for international audiences as well, but its full scope might be grasped only by someone familiar with the Finnish scene.

Yet, one should bear in mind that this has in fact been the case for many of operas now in the standard repertoire too. Henry Purcell’s King Arthur (1691) can only be fully grasped by one familiar with England’s political scene at the time. Neither can Fidelio (1805-14) be detached from Beethoven’s contemporary roots in the ideals of the French Revolution.

In any case, observing the vivid reactions of the FNOB audience confirmed, that the choice of concept was a successfully communicative one.

As a bittersweet reminder to what was lost, Covid fan tutte opens, not with Mozart, but Wagner’s prelude to Die Walküre. Salonen and the smaller-scale FNOB orchestra charged the prelude with astounding intensity, clad in luminous clarity of texture and phrasing. The oscillating strings carried the root of the wintry storm, pierced by woodwind icicles and brass howls, climaxing in rolling thunder of the timpani.

And here the music comes to a halt over a one long timpani fermata. The Interface Manager, portrayed with a formidable dead-pan by Sanna-Kaisa Palo, appears, announcing the cancellation of Die Walküre and commanding Salonen to switch over to Mozart. The mood is tuned over, as the orchestra ventures into the spirited overture to Così fan tutte.

The stage action begins to unravel. We encounter unemployed Wagner singers being recast in a Mozart buffa, with the Interface Manager seemingly writing the scenery as she goes. This bewilderment becomes the source for parody, en passant. Wisely, Lindgren does not linger in ideas beyond their natural potential, but quickly lets the dramaturgy move forward.

Government briefing. © Stefan Bremer

The main characters of the original Mozart – Da Ponte comedy are transformed into ministers and health officials, issuing government briefings, fatefully staged accoring to the visual appeal of their real-life counterparts, even including a sign language interpreter.

The naivety of the health-department in its initial optimism regarding the pandemic is treated with the clarity of hindsight, often resulting in befitting irony. Occasionally, the libretto resorts to some boomer humour, too, luckily in a self-conscious manner.

One of the key moments in Lindgern’s text is its reworking of Despina’s Aria into a gripping portrayal of the isolation brought upon the seventy plus people by the COVID-19 lockdown measures. Caring by isolating as a solitary effort can be seen as a part of both conscious and unconscious dehumanizing of the elderly, a process sneaking its way through our western society.

Absolutely nailed by Karita Mattila, both in terms of astounding vocal line and enthralling stage presence, the aria presents us with a living, yearning human being, covered from our sight by the stereotypes of frailty and age.

Karita Mattila as Despina. © Stefan Bremer

Naturally, social distancing appears in many of its everyday guises throughout the libretto. In the manner of a montage, we are introduced to the challenges of homeschooling, Zoom-meetings, surviving on canned food and tricky business in the process of getting used to face-masks.

Sung by Minna-Liisa Värelä, Johanna Rusanen, Tuomas Katajala, Waltteri Torikka and Tommi Hakala, the quintet is probably the most relatable, down-to-earth moment in the production. Simple and straightforward, it is an apt portrait of the middle-class during the pandemic.

The choruses are staged, naturally, on a large, multi-user Zoom-screen, still a prevailing reality of choral singing in many countries.

Replacing the recitatives, a meta-level is written in with the spoken text, having the singers appear as themselves, in the manner of a ghostwritten reality show. Mattila’s self-portrait is especially spot on, with delightful irony. While the most of it just simple comedy, there is a more serious undertone, as we are reminded of the repercussions of the standstill brought upon the performing arts by the lockdown.

The sung parts are filled with memorable takes on well-known numbers rewritten for the occasion. Be it Värelä and Rusanen in press briefings, masked Papageno-Torikka, Hakala singing the Catalogue Aria or Katajala serenading socially distanced on Mother’s Day, one feels well-entertained throughout the evening.

Relying on the audience’s familiarity with the recent events, the libretto often deals with things in a condensed manner, yielding to a series of independent scenes, woven together by the dialogue-lead narrative of the opera-in-progress.

In the end, the lockdown is brought to its end not so much by the ill-tested vaccination, as by the needs of the market economy. Onstage, capitalism is personified as a penny-bank in the image of Scrooge McDuck, a staple item in the Finnish homes for decades.

In terms of staging, one of the most intriguing ideas is presenting COVID-19 in the guise of a dancer. Clad in red, Natasha Lommi is omnipresent, sneaking in on each scene, to wander around bearing red roses.

Covid fan tutte closes with an image of the anthropomorphic COVID-19 caught in the middle of a red-hued corona, referring not only to the shape of the virus but also to the closing of Die Walküre, with Brünnhilde’s slumber surrounded by the magic fire of Loge.

All the onstage action stems wonderfully from the music, which, even in its reworked guise, remains true to the spirit of Mozart. In Salonen we have a truly fine Mozartian, combining earthiness and elan into a joyously expressive whole.

The score is brought to life with vividness and wit by the FNOB orchestra, breathing freely in elegant lines, in perfect companionship with the singers.

Although a performance of Der Schauspieldirector,KV 486 (1786) with the Philharmonia and Salonen in London was lost to COVID-19 in June, the FNOB Covid fan tutte makes this loss way more bearable.

The staging makes good use of all the resources available, including technical crew with forklifts and aptly integrated digital visuals, augmenting the clear-cut props. Balanced between real and surreal, the visual aspect is quite appealing.

Stage appeal from Covid fan tutte. © Stefan Bremer

With some scenes more elaborate than others, the stage direction embraces classic comedy lovingly, resulting in communicative, entertaining dramaturgy.

As a footnote, it should be also mentioned, that there is some diagenetic music at play too, in the guise of a Peter Shaffer moment featuring a Mozartian harpsichordist, playing a series of excerpts from The Ride of the Valkyries to Sandstorm.

All things considered, Covid fan tutte is an excellent time-piece, with many insightful observations of both the COVID-19 era and the art of opera itself. On surface, its comedy is often quite straightforward, yet there are those teasingly subtle undercurrents of irony roaming throughout the dramaturgy, providing extra layers as Mozart does with his score.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart / Minna Lindgren: Covid fan tutte

Orchestra and Chorus of the Finnish National Opera and Ballet

Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

Minna-Liisa Värelä, soprano (Fiordiligi)

Johanna Rusanen, mezzo-soprano (Dorabella)

Tuomas Katajala, tenor (Ferrando)

Waltteri Torikka, baritone (Guglielmo)

Karita Mattila, soprano (Despina)

Tommi Hakala, bass (Don Alfonso)

Sanna-Kaisa Palo, speaking role (Interface Manager)

Ylermi Rajamaa, silent role (Mozart)

Natasha Lommi, dancer (Covid virus)

Outi Huusko, sign language interpreter

Minna Lindgren, libretto

Jussi Nikkilä, director

Mark Väisänen, sets

Erika Turunen, costumes

Mikko Linnavuori, lighting and projection design

Riikka Räisänen, choreography

Juha-Matti Vuo, sound design

Finnish National Opera and Ballet

Thursday 3 September, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio