Radiant dawn for the Collon era with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Chief Conductor Nicholas Collon and the Finnish Radio Symphony orchestra after the Helsinki premiere of Thomas Adès’s Dawn. © Jari Kallio

Auguring a new era, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and their Chief Conductor Nicholas Collon set forth with their first joint season at their Helsinki Music Centre home this week, joined by live audiences, admitted to the hall for the first time since November 2020. Celebrating the many meetings, the orchestra and Collon had devised an admirably varied, yet remarkably coherent opening programme, with an inspired musical arch, extended in time and space.

It is hard to imagine a more befitting piece for a post-lockdown opening than Thomas Adès’s resplendent Dawn (2020). Subtitled chacony for orchestra at any distance, the seven-minute score was first performed online last year, with Sir Simon Rattle conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms on 31 August. The US premiere by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel was also an online affair, featured in the orchestra’s Sound/Stage series on 6 November 2020.

On both occasions, Dawn came of as a resplendent tableau of sublimely re-iterated orchestral textures. Yet neither of these admirable accounts can hardly match the sheer, quasi-tactile experience of hearing Adès’s radiant score unravel in genuine live performance, as it did with Collon and the FRSO on Thursday evening.

Conceived in the manner of a Baroque chaconne, the fourteen-page score is rooted in a single musical idea, transferred from one instrumental group to the next, giving rise to dazzlingly refined orchestral counterpoint. In terms of harmony and colour, the music bears echoes of Maurice Ravel, perhaps, while sounding ever quintessentially Adèsian. True to the title, the luminous textures of Dawn summon the imagery of a perpetual sunrise, as if seen from space.

Extending the standard symphonic instrumental setup, three percussionists join the ensemble, playing vibraphone as well as tuned bells and gongs, alongside harp and piano. The score includes a cimbalom part as well, with upright piano ossia, in which guise it was heard at the Helsinki Music Centre.

Graciously unveiled, the core material wanders through several orchestral permutations, zenithing with a rousing fff climax on the last two pages, providing the listener with a vision of a far green country under a swift sunrise, to put it in the words of J. R. R. Tolkien. Performed with astounding intensity and commitment, Dawn was given a spellbinding Finnish premiere by the FRSO and Collon, one of refined transparency and ravishing solar energy. The clear-cut textures were laid out with marvellous sense of pacing and balance, yielding to an unforgettable sonic experience.

The performance of Dawn picks up where the orchestra and Collon left upon the conductor’s very first visit to guest-conduct the FRSO back in March 2017, in a marvellous programme featuring two works by Adès, Dances from Powder Her Face (1995/2007) and In Seven Days (2008). With all these splendid forays in the Adès realm in mind, the parameters are indeed well-aligned for orchestra’s forthcoming Adès festival, ahead in October.

The sunlit C major bliss carried on beautifully to the second piece in the programme, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony (No. 41) in C major, K. 551 (1788), no less. Little is known about the origins of Mozart’s three last symphonies. All composed in the course of the summer months of 1788, none of them were actually commissioned. It has been suggested by some, most notably Nikolaus Harnoncourt, that the three symphonies are bound together into a twelve-movement instrumental oratorio. Be that as it may, the symphonies appear quite self-sufficient when performed as separate entities, as was the case with the joie de vivre outing by Collon and the FRSO.

Rooted in Collon’s 2019 studio take with his UK-based Aurora Orchestra, released on DG, his Helsinki vision of the symphony was pehaps more organic, especially in the allegro vivace and molto allegro outer movements. In both cases, Mozart’s boundless musical imagination was fully endorsed by the orchestra, clad in marvellously shaped phrases and dexterous counterpoint. The fugal feast of the finale was given an absolutely invigorating outing, a performance to be counted among the orchestra’s finest Mozart moments. Coloured by the splendid period trumpets and timpani, Collon and the musicians provided the audiences with a thoughtfully balanced reading, landing somewhere between contemporary sensibilities and the historically informed practice.

Opening the second half, two short orchestral works in wondrous symphonic raiments were performed. Written a century apart from each other, Lili Boulanger’s D’un matin de printemps (1917/1918) and Lotta Wennäkoski’s Flounce (2017) formed a gorgeous pairing, with both works displaying virtuoso orchestral writing, yielding to orchestral evocations of riveting connectivity.

Originally written for violin and piano, the orchestral version of D’un matin de printemps was the last work Boulanger completed before her tragic, untimely death at the age of twenty four. Although the music bears notable family relationship with the works of Debussy and Ravel, Boulanger’s take of the style often coined as Impressionism, is highly personal one. Keeping up with the matinal garments of Adès’s Dawn, Boulanger’s score was clad in vibrant hue of the first rays of the sun Collon and the FRSO delivered one of the (many) highlights of the fabulous evening.

In the course of the five-minute piece, the instrumental lines emitted fascinating continuum of white and red sonic heat, as if a morning mists paving the way for a radiant dawn.

Premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo at the 2017 BBC Proms, Wennäkoski’s Flounce is, according to the composer, ”largely characterized by brisk gestures non troppo serioso, but it also has passages of lace-like ornamenting in a more lightweight and lyrical mood. Within the challenging limits of the five-minute BBC commission, Wennäkoski came up with one of the most inspired Last Night pieces in recent years, bearing kinship with the playfully mysterious ambience of Anna Clyne’s Masquarade (2013), at least on its sounding surface.

Chief Conductor Nicholas Collon taking his bow at the Helsinki Music Centre on Thursday. © Jari Kallio

The evening’s sonic feast concluded with a vivaciously dramatic take on Igor Stravinsky’s terrific 1910-11 ballet score Pétrouchka. Cast in four scenes, the thirty-five-minute score is one of the composer’s absolute masterpieces, awash with Russian folklore, virtuosic cross-rhythms and glistening sonorities. Its poignant narrative hovers between two worlds, the buzzing reality of a shrove-tide fair and the magical inner realm of puppets, brought to life by the Charlatan’s flute.

The festive opening scene is followed by two intimate ones, presenting us with the unfortunate love triangle between the three living puppets, Petrushka, the Moor and the Ballerina. In the final scene, these two realms collide, as the Moor chases the poor Petrushka across the fair. The scene closes with Petrushkas’s death, followed by the phantasmagorical appearance of the puppet’s ghost.

The scenario, devised by the composer and Alexandre Benois, inspired Stravinsky to write one of his most imaginative musical scores. In addition to its countless stage appearances, Pétrouchka has become an essential part of the twentieth century concert-hall repertoire as well. In its concertante guise, the score is often performed in its revised, 1946-47 guise, as the FRSO and Collon did on Thursday. Although Stravinsky’s reworkings in the US were partly motivated by copyright issues, there were significant musical impulses at play as well.

In the case of Pétrouchka, the composer rescored his vast original version for a more standard-sized symphonic ensemble, thus making the score more appealing for concert programming. In addition, Stravinsky thoroughly re-adjusted his contrapuntal and harmonic designs, moving away from the Impressionistic hue of the first version, towards a more gripping orchestral narrative.

Even in its scaled-down guise, Pétrouchka is still a big piece, as Collon and the FRSO resoundingly demonstrated. The orchestra and conductor plunged into the score tremendous vigor and sonic splendor, giving rise to an exceptional performance. Instrumental theatre at the highest level, Stravinsky’s musical dramaturgy was laid out with precision and zeal, to an electrifying effect. The composer’s rhythmic multitude was given a well-articulated outing, whereas the melodic lines were adorned by aptly-balanced combination of spontaneity and refined detail.

In addition to the concert proper, the FRSO musicians provided their new chief (and the audience) with a series of delightful musical welcoming gifts. Launching the housewarming party an atmospheric, viol consort performance of Henry Purcell’s brilliant Fantasia upon One Note (1680) was heard, with its candle-lit layers laid out in beautifully lucid manner by the members of the orchestra’s string section. Heralding the second half, the FRSO trumpet section delivered an uplifting outing for Benjamin Britten’s marvellous Fanfare for St Edmundsbury (1959). Performed from the back of the hall, the clear ringing of the three trumpets adorned the auditorium is sunlit colours.

In addition to the two forays into English music, a joyful excerpt of Finnish spelman music tradition was thrown in as well, in the guise of Ostrobothnian wedding music, adapted for violin, double bass and harmonium.

A memorable evening on all accounts, one looks forward to the forthcoming musical adventures of the Collon era in Helsinki with enthusiasm.

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Nicholas Collon, conductor

Thomas Adès: Dawn (2020) – Chacony for orchestra at any distance, Finnish premiere

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony (No. 41) in C major, K. 551 (1788)

Lili Boulanger: D’un matin de printemps (1917/1918) for orchestra

Lotta Wennäkoski: Flounce (2017) for symphony orchestra

Igor Stravinsky: Pétrouchka (1910-11/1946-47) – Burlesque in four scenes

Music Centre, Helsinki, Finland

Thursday 9 September 2021, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio

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