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 

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