The opening of a new season is always an electrifying event in the calendar of an orchestra. Following a lockdown spring and a summer of cautious reopening, with the shadow on a COVID-19 second wave looming, the joy of having the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra onstage at the Helsinki Music Centre with their Chief Conductor Hannu Lintu on Friday evening was tangibly emotional.
Following a spring of streamed chamber music and a summer break, the season opening concert marked the first time in six months for the FRSO musicians to appear together as an orchestra.
The original pre-COVID-19 plan for the season opening would have featured 150 musicians for an audience of 1700. With everything reworked, the evening was launched with an orchestra of 15 players, performing for a safety-distanced full house, a live audience of c. 400. In addition, the concert was broadcasted and streamed for home audiences.
The first sounds of the evening emerged, not onstage, but from the back of the hall, as the FRSO violinist Hannu Vasara performed Johann Sebastian Bach’s Prelude form Partita no. 3 in E Major for solo violin, BWV 1006.
The Bach Prelude served as an introduction to the opening piece proper, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s FOG (2019). Written as a 90th birthday tribute for Frank Gehry, FOG was given its private premiere in Los Angeles last year. The first public outing took place in June, with Salonen conducting Avanti! Chamber Orchestra at the mini-scaled Summer Sounds festival in Porvoo, Finland.
The link between the Bach Prelude and Salonen’s fifteen-minute fantasy is found in a shared memory of Gehry and Salonen. The Prelude was the first piece of music performed in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, six months before the official opening ceremonies.
With the stage still under construction, Martin Chalifour, the Principal Concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, played the Bach Prelude as Salonen and Gehry listen from the topmost balcony. In celebration of that moment, Salonen based FOG on musical material derived from the Prelude.
In addition to Bach, FOG, titled after Gehry’s initials, is rooted in a F A G E H (or B natural) scheme, derived from the name of its dedicatee. From these materials, Salonen has crafted a wondrous instrumental tableau, a sonic fantasy of sea and light, glimmering in a dream-like hue.
As the offstage violin sounded its final note, the onstage ensemble picked up its cue. Flute and harp echo Bach’s solo line, with oboe, clarinet piano and strings providing sublime counterpoint. The music begins to grow, zooming in and out of its Bachian roots.
In its luminous sounding guise, FOG bears family resemblance to several Salonen’s earlier scores, including the Cello Concerto (2017) and Wing on Wing (2004), to name but a few. Brilliantly scored, FOG combines ravishing orchestral sonorities to chamber-like transparency and dexterity, to an astonishing effect. Marvellously performed by the FRSO musicians under Lintu, FOG was given the most enchanting performance. With the composer present in the hall, the evening was thus launched with thrill and joy.
After Salonen’s radiant fantasy, the evening proceeded with another dreamscape, Benjamin Britten’s Nocturne, Op. 60 (1958). Scored for tenor, seven obbligato instruments, and strings, Nocturne is a journey into the shadows of the night, as imagined by English poets from William Shakespeare to Wilfred Owen.
For each poem, Britten has coupled the vocal line with a solo instrument, woven into the string fabric. Each of these instruments, flute, English horn, clarinet, bassoon, horn, harp and timpani, is used to provide sonic colour in accord to the altering moods of those eight poems.
Astoundingly crafted, the orchestral score gives rise to a sequence of nocturnal vistas. As if in slumber, the solo voice embarks upon a dream-quest into the realm of the subconscious, guiding the listener through a series of vivid images.
Yielding to a spell-like continuum between dream and nightmare, Nocturne is a masterpiece of vocal and instrumental writing. On Friday evening, tenor Tuomas Katajala, Lintu and the musicians of the FRSO made Britten proud with an outstanding performance.
The formidable array of colour, provided by the FRSO strings was enhanced with admirable sensitivity by the solo instruments. With Lintu at the helm, the instrumental textures were always in perfect accord and balance with the vocal line, resulting in a magical experience.
Katajala’s sensitivity of expression was ever admirable, yielding to a profoundly moving account of the vocal part, enhanced by the fabulous obbligato instruments. With sublime reactivity, the texts were clad in myriad of guises, to a wondrous effect.
The years following the premiere of Le Sacre du printemps (1911-13) were, in many ways, testing for Igor Stravinsky. The revolutionary ballet score, while riotously successful, marked an end of a journey begun with L’oiseau de feu in 1910.
After Sacre, Stravinsky was faced with the need to rethink his style, as his new score could not be bettered in its own game. Thus, a decade of intense search begun.
Overlapping with repercussions of the Great War, Stravinsky experimented with various types of music theatre, scored for diverse ensembles, including Les Noces (1914-17/1923), Renard (1915-16) and L’Histoire du Soldat (1918), eventually landing on a game-changing project proposed by Serge Diaghilev, a ballet based on the music of an early 18th century Italian composer, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi.
Stravinsky’s task was to adapt the music from various works composed by (or attributed to) Pergolesi for an one-ballet, scored for chamber orchestra and three solo voices. As a result, Stravinsky produced an absolutely brilliant score, way beyond mere arrangement. In fact, with the subtlest of means, set forth to reinvent the 18th century, now clad in poignant harmonies and quirky rhythms.
An so it was, that the score of Pulcinella (1919-20) bore Stravinsky’s fingerprints all over to such an extent, that with time, it was (justly) perceived as an original composition. In addition to the ballet, Stravinsky went on to produce an eight-movement concert suite, with the voice parts rescored for instruments.
On Friday, the twenty-two-minute Pulcinella Suite provided an apt concert closure for the FRSO and Lintu. The music was set in motion with a vigorous take on the dazzlingly upbeat Sinfonia, splendidly contrasted by the sublime reading of the Serenade.
The ensuing sequence of 18th century dances, clad in riveting sonorities, was a feast of rhythmic and instrumental invention, performed with energetic precision by the musicians of the FRSO. Rooted in an exemplary mixture of earthiness and elegance, Stravinsky’s kinetic tableaux yielded to a joyous whole, rounded off with a rousing Finale.
Blissfully received by the safety-distanced Music Centre audience, this was a season opening to remember. While downscaled in the physical realm, the evening was upscaled manifoldly in the metaphysical. A herald of a new era.
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Hannu Lintu, conductor
Tuomas Katajala, tenor
Hannu Vasara, violin
Johann Sebastian Bach: Prelude form Partita no. 3 in E Major for solo violin, BWV 1006
Esa-Pekka Salonen: FOG (2019) for ensemble
Benjamin Britten: Nocturne, Op. 60 (1958) for tenor, seven obbligato instruments, and strings
Igor Stravinsky: Pulcinella-Suite (1919-20/1949) for orchestra
Music Centre, Helsinki
Friday 4 September 2020, 8 pm
© Jari Kallio