Rejuvenating evening with John Adams conducting the Lahti Symphony

John Adams and the Lahti Symphony rehearsing Harmonielehre at the Sibelius Hall on Wednesday. © Jari Kallio

Launching their new contemporary music series, Focus, the Lahti Symphony Orchestra teamed up with the composer and conductor John Adams this week, putting together a terrific programme with Adams’s masterful Harmonielehre (1985) as its main piece. One of Adams’s best-know scores, the forty-minute symphony-but-name has become a veritable classic over the past thirty six years, and deservedly so.

Written for large orchestra, the three-movement score is a genuinely symphonic statement, rooted in Adams’s early minimalist tendencies as well as full-blown instrumental dramaturgy of the entire twentieth century, and paying homages to Jean Sibelius and Gustav Mahler alike. Picking up where his choral symphony Harmonium (1981) left, the orchestral fabric of Harmonielehre stems from pulsating rhythms and glimmering harmonies, manifested throughout the outer movements and juxtaposed with the sonic desolation and anguish of the slow movement, aptly tiled as The Anfortas Wound.

Coming out of the young composer’s prolonged creative block, Harmonielehre arrives on the stage with a bang, as the first movement is launched by a series of E minor chords, hammered out by full orchestra, summoning the music into being. For Adams, rhythm is not mere gesture, but the very root for the most invigorating instrumental dramaturgy. Following a captivating series of textural permutations, extended melodic lines take over in the celli, as the first movement flows into its lyrical middle section. Another spellbinding sequence ensues, with full orchestral workout, before the opening pulses reappear and bring the movement to its cathartic close.

With the composer on the podium, the opening movement was given a ravishing workout by the Lahti Symphony. Propelled by exquisite rhythmic impetus, the music scintillated with liberated orchestral energy, while the melodic lines were phrased with admirable naturalness and sonic beauty.

A stark contrast in mood, the somber opening of the second movement bears notable allusions to Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony (1910-11). Hauntingly sparse, the music wanders through mist-hued orchestral darkness, while harmonic tensions mount in the undercurrents. A twelve-minute Parsifal perhaps, the music builds up to an earth-shattering climax paralleling that of the Adagio of Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony (1910). Torn into shreds, the movement closes with disparate musical lines floating in the air, eventually coming together to ring out the brooding final chords.

Making great use of their unparalleled Sibelius tradition, the Lahti players delivered an awe-inspiring performance of The Anfortas Wound. With Adams at the helm, the movement’s symphonic arch unraveled with gripping drama and frailty, yielding to the most compelling account of this music ever encountered by this writer.

A healing vision, the third movement, Meister Eckhardt and Quackie, opens in the manner of a celestial lullaby, with its gently rocking rhythms graciously unraveled, clad in twinkling raiments by the full orchestra. Halfway into the movement, the music goes into final transformation, as the orchestral pulsations gain ever more kinetic energy, resolving into a glistening ocean of harmony and rhythm, bringing Harmonielehre to its resplendently forceful, life-affirming close.

The most uplifting outing imaginable, the closing movement was pure musical joy. From the utmost tenderness of the opening pages to the elated radiance of the powerhouse conclusion, the orchestra and the composer took their audience on a tremendous sonic journey, one lauded with several curtain calls and a standing ovation.

Lahti Symphony and John Adams onstage after a resplendent performance of Harmonielehre. © Jari Kallio

Alongside Harmonielehre, on the first half of the evening, the programme featured an inspired pairing of pieces by Maurice Ravel and Philip Glass.Written for the Labeque sisters in 2015 and premiered with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel, Glass’s Double Concerto for Two Pianos is a charmingly Poulencesque affair. Although cast in three movements, the concerto makes a departure from the usual fast-slow-fast scheme. Instead, it adopts an overall plan of upbeat opening, followed by rhythmically pronounced middle movement and concluding with deeply nostalgic finale.

Among the Glass oeuvre, the concerto bears multi-layered connections with the composer’s Etudes for Piano (1991-2012), Concerto for Saxophone Quartet (1995) and Orphée (1992), yielding to one of his most French pieces, an apt reminder of the composer’s Parisian connections and his studies with the legendary Nadia Boulanger.

Glass’s two-piano writing is abundant with his trademark techniques, such as superimposed duple and triple meters, bittersweet harmonies and various arpeggio passages, interlocked into clear-cut, evocative keyboard textures. The orchestral writing is sublime, with the instrumental groups layered into organ-like sonic fabric, providing the piano lines with appealingly autumnal coloring

Scored for standard orchestral line-up with variety of percussion added, the concerto is unmistakably Glassian in its sonic conception, while bearing notable connections with Poulenc’s 1932 concerto of the same name, with almost identical instrumental-line up.

With Mirka Viitala and Emil Holmström as its splendid soloists, the Glass concerto was performed with rhythmic vitality and lyrical sweep at the Sibelius Hall. The keyboard parts were beautifully interlocked throughout, while Adams and the orchestra joined their soloists as trusted partners. The orchestral fabric was woven into the piano lines with fine-tuned balancing and rhythmic precision, resulting in appealingly translucent performance.

John Adams and Mirka Viitala putting finishing touches on Philip Glass’s Double Concerto at the Sibelius Hall.

Consolidating the French connection for the first half, the evening was launched with a marvellous performance of Maurice Ravel’s masterful choreographic poem La Valse (1919-20). A dazzling twelve-minute tableau for large orchestra of resplendent colours, La Valse constitutes a surreal dreamscape of a nineteenth-century Viennese ballroom, emerging from the mists and opening into a quasi-cinematic panorama in sound.

Ravel’s score is set in motion with murmuring hue from the double basses, embedded with initial rhythmic pulse. Winds and upper strings join, with timpani, and the music builds up to whirling dancescape for full orchestra, based on ever-intensifying iterations of a stylized waltz subject. The tensions keep mounting, until La Valse eventually obliterates itself in a giant orchestral blast; a sonic manifestation of fin-de-siècle par excellence. Although Ravel was to return to this morbid dramaturgy in Bolero (1928) and Concerto for the Left Hand (1929-31), in La Valse, the impact is at its most powereful.

One of Ravel’s absolute masterpieces, La Valse was given an aptly dramatic performance by the Lahti Symphony under Adams. A performance rooted in solid architecture, the musical narrative unfolded with riveting intensity, as the orchestra mastered Ravel’s instrumental theatre with intricate detail and harmonic finesse.

A rejuvenating evening on all accounts, hopefully to be followed by a second visit from Mr Adams in a not-too-distant future.

Lahti Symphony Orchestra

John Adams, conductor

Mirka Viitala, piano

Emil Holmström, piano

Maurice Ravel: La Valse (1919-20) – Poème choréegraphique

Philip Glass: Double Concerto for Two Pianos (2015/2016)

John Adams: Harmonielehre (1985) for orchestra

Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland

Thursday 7 October, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio

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