Tiensuu’s sheng concerto at Sibelius Hall – Enchanting evening with Wu Wei, Dalia Stasevska and the Lahti Symphony

Wu Wei, the Lahti Symphony and Dalia Stasevska performing Jukka Tiensuu’s Teoton (2015) at Sibelius Hall on Thursday. © Jari Kallio

The second installment in Lahti Symphony Orchestra’s Fokus series on Thursday presented the Sibelius Hall audience with a multi-faceted programme devised by the legendary Finnish composer Jukka Tiensuu. Under Chief Conductor Dalia Stasevska’s direction, the evening’s playlist brought together a fascinating selection of less frequently heard pieces from the twentieth century repertoire, alongside Tiensuu’s exquisite concerto for sheng and orchestra, Teoton (2015), with the veritable master of the instrument, Wu Wei as soloist.

In the manner of the orchestra’s first Fokus concert in October, curated and conducted by John Adams, the repertoire chosen for Thursday’s setting was linked to the music of the evening’s composer in focus. While some of the connections were more obvius than others, the multi-coloured programme of Edgar Varèse, Alberto Ginastera and Percy Graingerin constituted a wonderful staging for Tiensuu’s main piece.

Premiered in October 2015 by Wu Wei and the Seoul Philharmonic under Ilan Volkov, Teoton is written for Chinse mouth organ soloist and an orchestra of duple winds and brass, with full string ensemble and two percussionists playing vibraphone and tubular bells. The concerto is divided into four movements, performed attacca. The movements’ titles refer to their overall character, without providing very strict contextual setup, typically for Tiensuu.

The opening movement, Fever, is launched by the soloist, paving the way for a series of dialogues between sheng and various instrumental groups. Although hectic at times, some of the music is written tongue in cheek, resulting in sublime commentary of laconic wit. In the Adrift second movement, the instrumental conversation goes into free association. As suggested by the title, the musical fabric floats more freely, yielding to a semi-conscious, dream-like effect.

There is some trickster agility at play in the third movement. Titled Game, the musical dramaturgy seems to apply its rule-book somewhat selectively, giving rise to a series of allusions to various types of sport and jest. In the concerto’s conclusion, textures are thinned down to glimmering weightlessness, gradually evaporating into silence and providing the listener (and undoubtedly the performer also) with a sense of Bliss, as implied by the title.

In Teoton, Tiensuu makes great use of the solo instrument’s enchanting uniqueness, reworking sheng into a concertante setting with splendid musical imagination. The sonic continuum between the solo part and the orchestral groups is marvellous, one to shift the experience of time itself. Coloured by vibraphone and tubular bells, the orchestral fabric interacts with the sheng line in dazzling ways, resulting in musical phenomena of spellbinding uniqueness.

With Wu Wei, the orchestra and Stasevska onstage, the sonic parameters were skillfully aligned throuhgout Teoton, giving rise to an instrumental narrative of compelling originality. Refined and inspired, the performance was warmly received by the Sibelius Hall audience.

Premiered in New York in 1925, Edgar Varèse’s ten-minute Intégrales (1923) is a terrific study of texture, harmony and rhythm, scored for an ensemble of eleven wind and brass players and four percussionists. Like most of the Varèse oeuvre, Intergales is not too often performed. For this writer, the Lahti performance was only the second live encounter with the score, following an intense take by François-Xavier Roth and the Berliner Philharmoniker in the fall 2019.

Conceived in ever-changing meters, Intégrales adopts the full textural potential of the ensemble into an enthralling sequence of harmonic colour. The score opens with an E-flat clarinet solo, intertwined with tremendous sounding pillars from winds and brass, ornamented with a rhythmic maze, laid out by percussion. Solo passages for trumpet, oboe and horn ensue, as the score is unveiled in sound. At times, the buzzing ensemble activity comes to a halt, with long-held, chorale-like formations taking shape within the fabric. Following a series of fascinating permutations, all the instrumental groups finally land on an Earth-shaking closing chord, marked sffff by Varèse.

Forceful and detailed, Integrales was a terrific affair. With Stasevska and the members of the Lahti Symphony, Varèse’s ten-minute ritual took the listener on a journey to invigorating realms and possible worlds. The musical imagery took hold, and carried way into the post-concert reality, alighting the Boreal darkness with red and white heat.

Varèse’s contemporary, the Australian composer Percy Grainger is also to be counted among the great originals of the twentieth century. In his orchestral music, often conceived in short but ever so evocative sonic tableaux, the standard symphonic forces are joined with multitude of keyboard and percussion, to open up vistas into hitherto unforeseen musical landscapes.

The four-movement orchestral suite In a Nutshell (1915-16) is one of the composer’s most delightful compositions. Hardly a repertoire piece, the suite would deserve more outings, certainly, as the two live performances encountered by the undersigned, the one in Lahti yesterday and the other in Berlin with Sir Simon Rattle in the summer of 2016 both resoundingly demonstrated.

Scored for a large orchestra of triple winds and brass, alongside full string section, Grainger’s instrumental setup for In a Nutshell includes vast percussion section with keyboards, mallet instruments, bells, cymbals and tam-tams providing exotic colorization for melodic material derived from British folk music. As a whole, the musical sequence bears an aura of proto-cinematic scenery, one which mixes fairy-tale narratives and snapshots of everyday life into alluring sonic images.

With Stasevska, the full line-up of the Lahti Symphony plunged into Grainger’s musical ocean with commitment and enthusiasm, delivering a powerhouse performance, awash with catchy melodies and invigorating sonic colour. An eccentric journey for sure, In a Nutshell was pure joy.

The evening’s opener, Danza final from Alberto Ginastera’s 1941 ballet Estancia, set the concert delightfully in kinetic motion. Interestingly, Ginastera’s rhythmic vitality seemed to bridge back to the orchestra’s first Fokus evening, sharing its propulsive energy with that of Adams’s Harmonielehre (1985), heard in October. A joyous series altogether, the Fokus concept will carry overt to the orchestra’s following seasons, with new guests and new discoveries.

Lahti Symphony Orchestra

Dalia Stasevska, conductor

Wu Wei, sheng

Alberto Ginastera: Danza final (1941) from the ballet ”Estancia”

Jukka Tiensuu: Teoton (2015) – Concerto for sheng and orchestra

Edgar Varèse: Intégrales (1923) for winds, brass and percussion

Percy Grainger: In a Nutshell (1915-16) – Suite for large orchestra

Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland

Thursday 25 November 2021, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio

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