An evening of musical magic with Dalia Stasevska, Jess Gillam and the Lahti Symphony

Dalia Stasevska on the podium. © Nikolaj Lund

On Thursday evening, the Lahti Symphony Orchestra and their Chief Conductor Designate Dalia Stasevska provided their online audiences with a foretaste of things to come. Designed as a miniature presentation of the key elements of Stasevska’s forthcoming tenure, the programme featured an intriguing mix of contemporary music and the orchestra’s trademark repertoire.

In addition to musical performances, an overview of the orchestra’s 2021-2022 season was presented by Stasevska and the Lahti Symphony General Manager Teemu Kirjonen. Focusing on diversity, the forthcoming season is to include an Anna Meredith premiere and a guest appearance by John Adams, alongside performances of Unsuk Chin, Jukka Tiensuu, Sofia Gubaidulina, Lili Boulanger and Edgar Varèse, coupled with a relatively wide range of (more or less) familiar repertoire.

As for the evening’s sounding substance, the programme opened with Steve Reich’s enchanting Duet (1993) for two solo violins and string ensemble. Dedicated to Sir Yehudi Menuhin, the five-minute score reinvents Reichian canonic processes within quasi-Baroque raiments. In the score, the two interlocking soloists and the ensemble of violas, celli and double basses navigate through eloquent contrapuntal textures resulting from unison canons at slightly varied rhythmic distances, supported by incessant ground pulse.

Marvellously performed by the Lahti Symphony leaders Maaria Leino and Mikaela Palmu, alongside their colleagues under Stasevska, Duet was given a splendidly translucent reading at the Sibelius Hall. Serene and invigorating, Reich’s concertante miniature was a perfect mood-setter for the inspired evening.

Following Duet, the Lahti Symphony and Stasevska teamed up with the wonderful English saxophonist Jess Gilliam for a performance of Gavin Bryars’s astoundingly beautiful saxophone concerto The Green Ray (1991).

Written for Gillam’s teacher and mentor John Harle and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta, The Green Ray is inspired by Jules Verne’s romantic novel set in the West of Scotland. The title refers to an atmospheric phenomenon of the setting sun briefly emitting a green ray of light, a seal of a couple’s love in the Verne story. Alongside the novel, the piping traditions of Western Scotland provided the composer with further inspiration for the musical shape of The Green Ray.

Conceived in one, twenty-minute movement, divided into sub-sections, The Green Ray is an astoundingly beautiful and tremendously intense meditation for soprano saxophone and chamber orchestra. Within its dream-like arch, the elegiac and the magical are woven together into luminous musical entity. The slowly unfolding saxophone solos are echoed by the dazzling timbral sphere of the orchestral parts, giving rise to a series of captivating sonic images.

Alongside her fabulous performances of Michael Nyman’s Where the Bee Dances (1991), also written for Harle and the Bournemouth players, The Green Ray has become a solid part of Gillam’s concerto repertoire.

If Harle’s initial performances of Where the Bee Dances and The Green Ray were, in Nyman’s words, manifestations of ”hard-edged romanticism”, Gillam’s approach to both concertos present us with a ravishing storyteller. As demonstrated by the Sibelius Hall performance of The Green Ray, Gillam’s captivating ability to take her listeners and fellow musicians on a spellbinding sonic journey results in unique intensity and uplifting vigour, while maintaining admirable sensuousness of tone.

The Green Ray opens with an exquisite, slow melody for the soprano saxophone, echoed by sustained strings, brass and distantly chiming glockenspiel. The whole orchestra joins gradually, and the music grows into a mist-hued tableau, clad in evening sunlight. Ethereally performed by Gillam, Stasevska and the Lahti Symphony, the opening was pure magic.

In the course of The Green Ray, Bryars introduces ravishing harmonic sequences, passing through the ensemble like cloud formations, with the soloist’s sunlit lines entangled in the fabric. Delicately balanced by Stasevska, the members of the Lahti Symphony were ideal partners for Gillam’s focused solos.

As the score proceeds, sublime string pulsations emerge, and the music gains new momentum. The soloist is joined by orchestral winds and brass, perhaps most notably by flugelhorn, with piano and percussion providing some astonishing extra colour. A short pause ensues, paving the way for a brief, otherworldly orchestral interlude. The solo line resumes, and the music grows ecstatic, yet ever holding to its sublime intimacy.

The Green Ray closes with an achingly beautiful coda, conceived in interwoven solo lines. On the final bars, the solo saxophone aligns with the flugelhorn in shared musical moments, bringing the concerto to its wondrous end.

Jess Gillam portrait by © Robin Clewley

A terrific performance on all accounts, the seamless teamwork between Gillam, Stasevska and the orchestra resulted in tremendously focused music-making, abundant with fine detail and riveting lyricism.

Hopefully Gilliam’s appearances with the Finnish orchestras carry on long into the future. Having now heard her perform John Williams and Gavin Bryars here in Finland, one hopes that she will also present us with the new concerto Anna Clyne is composing for her some day in a not-too-distant future.

Despite its modest proportions, Jean Sibelius’sSymphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 55 (1906-07) is a revolutionary work. Perhaps akin to its exact contemporary, Arnold Schoenberg’s Kammersymphonie, Op. 9 (1906) for fifteen instruments, Sibelius’s Third shuns away from the all-encompassing proportions of Mahler’s vast symphonic endeavours, in favour of a more condensed musical scheme.

In the score of the Third Symphony, Sibelius’s ideas of organic development are taken to the next level, with the fusion of scherzo and finale in the third movement. Instead of two movements played attacca, Sibelius’s finale literally emerges from the musical kernels of the scherzo, paving the way for the dazzling synthesis of the Seventh Symphony (1918-24).

The opening movement bears family relationship with its counterpart in the Second Symphony (1901-02/1903). Both movements are rooted in Sibelius’s newly-found interest in classical models, as a part of the composer’s quest for ever more organised formal logic. The central slow movement, marked andantino con moto, quasi allegretto lands somewhere between a variation form and a rondo, with its compelling simplicity and musical invocation.

However, despite Sibelius’s ground-breaking experimentation with form and texture, the Third Symphony is an instantly appealing musical entity. Its vigorous rhythmic pulse and inspired melodic contours constitute an invigorating symphonic score, one wholeheartedly endorsed by the joyfully animated performance of Stasevska and the Lahti players.

Within well-conceived symphonic architecture, the orchestra conveyed Sibelius’s motivic permutations with eloquent phrasing and admirable continuity, while keeping an eye on the dynamic finesse throughout the sonic arch. Well paced by Stasevska, the central movement came off as a compelling mixture of meditation and symphonic narrative.

The outer movements displayed exemplary clarity and translucence, without compromising the dramatic intensity inherent in Sibelius’s score; a refreshing outing whetting appetite for the forthcoming performances of the composer’s oeuvre by Stasevska and the orchestra at this year’s Sibelius Festival.

A truly inspiring evening altogether, Thursday’s performances set the bar high for the Stasevska era ahead in Lahti.

Lahti Symphony Orchestra

Dalia Stasevska, conductor

Jess Gillam, saxophone

Steve Reich: Duet (1993) for two solo violins and string ensemble

Gavin Bryars: The Green Ray (1991) for soprano saxophone and chamber orchestra

Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52 (1906-07)

Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland

Thursday 6 May 2021, 7 pm (livestreamed on the Lahti Symphony Youtube channel)

© Jari Kallio

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