Rejoined with live audiences for the first time since November 2020, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and Chief Conductor Susanna Mälkki turned the 2021/2022 season opening into a veritable feast of live music at their Helsinki Music Centre home on Friday. An absolutely unforgettable evening, the programme featured forays into two notably different, albeit equally inspired musical realms.
The opening night’s big event was, naturally, the world premiere of Felipe Lara’s Double Concerto (2019), jointly commissioned by the Helsinki Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Postponed due to the pandemic, the premiere was a much-anticipated event, not least because of its two remarkable soloists, jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding and flutist Claire Chase.
A meeting-point for many a musical strata, Lara’s Double Concerto is an ingeniously organic fusion of seemingly disjointed traditions. The score makes dazzling use of the immense expressive scope of its two soloists, alongside a large symphony orchestra of triple and quadruple winds and brass, timpani, three percussionists, two amplified harps and full string section, divided into two equal groups, tuned ¼ tone apart from each other.
The solo parts are laid out on four staves, featuring two voice parts, a double bass line and flute part scored for glissando headjoint, flute in C, contrabass flute in C and alto flute in G, resulting in a sort of concerto grosso setting. According to the composer, his writing was aimed to expand the solo parts in one sense and to fuse them together in another. In addition to detailed notation, there are various degrees of improvisation at play throughout the concerto, most notably in the whirling cadenza.
The voice parts alternate between vocalise and a text extracted from a 2002 poem by the composer, found in his diary. Written in the Brazilian-American composer’s native Portuguese, the sung text is blended with the instrumental writing, as if an intimate thread running through the musical fabric, without actually stepping into the limelight.
The thirty-minute concerto is cast in single movement, where musical sections flow seamlessly from one to another, yielding to a spellbinding sonic arch. The orchestral part alternates between intricate passages chamber music and jagged, quasi-Stravinskyan tutti sections, ever awash with the most astounding colours and harmonic fields. The soloists and the orchestra react to each other on several levels of instrumental dramaturgy, joined in a shared musical argument on some occasions, diametrically juxtaposed on others.
The amplified solo parts for Spalding and Chase constitute an entire musical universe of their own, one with tremendous multitudes of texture, harmony and colour. The admirable details of Lara’s writing could be discussed ad infinitum, alongside the terrific contributions of Spalding and Chase, but as words can only capture some superficial aspects of a deeply musical situation, I kindly ask the reader to respect my reluctance to break the score down into its ingredients.
In a double concerto setting, be it one by Brahms, Ligeti or Lara, the network of musical interactions calls forth a very special form of teamwork between the soloists, the conductor and the orchestra. With Spalding, Chase and Mälkki sharing the stage with the Helsinki Philharmonic, the musical dialogue was conveyed with awe-inspiring musical connectivity, resulting in one of the most powerful performances in living memory.
Premiered with remarkable fortitude and invention, the unique musical realm of Double Concerto was summoned into radiant sounding guise, one abundant with vibrant, tactile sonic energy. In Lara’s score, all the diverse musical impulses give rise to a whole new musical language, somewhat in the manner of Steve Reich’s masterpieces. Perfected in performance by the stunning input from its dedicatees, Double Concerto is something special indeed. Be it the full scope of the flute realm in Chase’s part(s) or the wealth of detail in Spalding’s vocal and instrumental performance, not to mention their joint contribution, the solo lines alone constitute a musical sphere worthy of entire library of writings. Add Mälkki and orchestra to the game, all words fail to encapsulate all the artistry transpired onstage at the Helsinki Music Centre on Friday evening.
While the first half of the opening concert revisited more traditional repertoire, it too was an uplifting affair. Hearing the first set of Antonín Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, Op. 46 (1878) in its entirety was an enlightening affair, a musical privilege not too often available in a concert setting. Although there are plenty of recordings featuring all the dances around, this was my first concert hall encounter of the complete opus 46 in a single performance, beautifully complementing the wonderful outing for all the opus 72 dances (1886/1887) by the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle some years ago.
On both occasions, hearing the complete sequence of eight dances shed whole new light on the brilliance of Dvořák’s intricate orchestral writing and sublime emotional acuteness, revealing layers of musicality often unnoticed with (encore) renditions of single dances.
”I have a soft spot for Slavonic Dances. These pieces are ”hits”, of course, but they have become that because they are also such great music. What matters is respecting the music’s innocence and enabling contrasting experiences”, Mälkki aptly summed up the matter in our discussion last year.
Merging entertainment with artistry and impeccable craft, Dvořák’s writing is perhaps at its most inspired in the Slavonic Dances. Both insightful psychological studies and sweeping choreographic poems, the dances are indeed entertainment at the highest level, as the superlative performances by Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic wholeheartedly demonstrated.
With Mälkki on the podium, the orchestra’s gorgeously deep-hued trademark sound served the Slavonic Dances marvellously, resulting in a series of beautifully sensitive dancescapes. Contained in the eight dances, the whole spectrum of human emotion was awaken in sounding miniatures of striking vividness and subtlety. Emerging from the prolonged pandemic silence, the profoundly reflective performance of Dvořák’s dances had a therapeutic function as well, providing the audience with a safe space for reflection and renewal.
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
Susanna Mälkki, conductor
Esperanza Spalding, double bass & voice
Claire Chase, flutes
Antonín Dvořák: Slavonic Dances, Op. 46 (1878) for orchestra
Felipe Lara: Double Concerto (2019) for Esperanza Spalding, Claire Chase and large symphony orchestra, world premiere
Music Centre, Helsinki, Finland
Friday 10 September 2021, 7 pm
© Jari Kallio