Missy Mazzoli’s new Violin Concerto in dazzling Nordic premiere by Jennifer Koh, the Lahti Symphony and Dalia Stasevska

Jennifer Koh, the Lahti Symphony Orchestra and Chief Conductor Dalia Stasevska perfroming Missy Mazzoli’s Violin Concerto (Procession) (2021) at Sibelius Hall. © Jari Kallio

It is not every day that one gets to hear a tremendous new violin concerto, but Thursday was one of those days. Given its Nordic premiere by Jennifer Koh, the Lahti Symphony Orchestra and Chief Conductor Dalia Stasevska, Missy Mazzoli’s Violin Concerto (Procession) was an enthralling affair, marking the pinnacle of the 2022/2023 season opening concert.

Commissioned for Koh by National Symphony Orchestra, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and BBC Radio 3, with support by ARCO Collaborative, the twenty-minute concerto is cast in five spellbinding movements, yielding to an aural ritual of compelling intensity. Mazzoli’s score is wrought of astounding sonorities, giving rise to the most fascinating instrumental dramaturgy.

According to the composer’s note, the concerto casts the soloist as a soothsayer, sorcerer, healer and pied piper-type character, leading the orchestra through five interconnected healing spells. Part one, Procession in a Spiral, references medieval penitential processions; part two, St. Vitus, is an homage to the patron saint of dancing, who could reportedly cast out evil spirits; part three, O My Soul, is a twisted reworking of the hymn of the same name, and part four, Bone to Bone, Blood to Blood, derives its name from the 9th-century Merseburg Charm, a spell meant to cure broken limbs. In the final movement, Procession Ascending, the soloist straightens out the spiral of the first section and leads the orchestra straight into the sky.

The concerto opens with the soloist’s haunting incantation, answered with huge chordal utterances by the orchestra, echoing, perhaps, the dramatic setting of the slow movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1805-06). The spiral-like movement unfolds in the manner of deep meditation, to gripping effect. A spiritual connection between Mazzoli’s score and some of the late works by Einojuhani Rautavaara is suggested by their shared intensity of musical conjuring.

Marked Dancing, whirling, the St. Vitus second movement follows without break. Pulsating and vibrant, clad in exquisite harmonies and elaborate counterpoint, the music builds up to a ritual dance of gorgeous sonic imagery.

An orchestral accompaniment of pillar-like chords and descending scalar patterns sets the stage for the soloist’s reflective instrumental theatre in O My Soul. Halfway into the movement, an extensive solo cadenza emerges, presented in contemplative manner. The ensemble rejoins, chanting along the solo violin, evoking subconscious memories of some long-forgotten nocturnal service.

Launched with a fast, quasi-cinematic cut, Bone to Bone, Blood to Blood opens with an Agitato violin ostinato, flowing almost incessantly throughout the movement, pierced by short interjections for the orchestra. Gradually, long-held instrumental lines emerge, mounting to some ingenious counterpoint, woven together with the solo part. On the last two pages, the fabric is again thinned down, to captivating effect.

In the culminating Procession Ascending, musical aurora of ever-permuting cycles are sounded by the soloist and the orchestra, lending the music befittingly transcendental aura.

An astounding performance from Koh, the orchestra and Stasevska, the Mazzoli concerto was presented in its full enchantment and merit, clad in refined textures of profound virtuosity. Captivating and evocative, the performance shined on immaculately balanced textures, ones awash with formidable colour and minutiae harmonic detail.

Received with enthusiasm in Lahti, the Mazzoli concerto bears unusual intensity and directness, especially when performed with such remarkable dedication and craft. A game-changing musical experience, no less, the Nordic premiere was one for the books.

Auguring the evening with a contemporary classic, John Adams’s rousing orchestral fanfare, Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986), was sounded in powerhouse performance by the Lahti Symphony under Stasevska. A joyful afterthought to the orchestra’s glorious account of Harmonielehre (1985) with the composer himself on the podium last fall, Adams’s brilliant fanfare propelled the concert in upbeat motion.

Inspired by an out-of-comfort-zone car ride the composer took at the passenger seat of a friend’s Ferrari back in the day, Short Ride in a Fast Machine is launched with a steadfast woodblock pulse, joined by clarinets and trumpets, followed by full wind section, horns, trombones and percussion. After a splendid build-up, strings enter the stage, providing a new layer of colour. Thundering timpani and bass drum mark the first climax, paving the way for more unstable central section. The pace mounts, as the orchestral joyride reaches zenith and takes a quick turn back to square one in the brief coda. The orchestra hits the break and Short Ride in a Fast Machine comes to its close.

A resplendent performance, rooted in energetic orchestral agility, the Lahti players took the opening night audience on a road trip to full-throttled symphonic splendor. Stasevska’s tempi were broad enough to give the orchestra its hour to shine, without downplaying the score’s inherent drive, much in the manner of the composer’s own readings. An opener to the bone, Short Ride in a Fast Machine was pure delight.

On the second half, Béla Bartók’s epic Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116 (1943) was heard in splendid outing from Stasevska and the orchestra. Commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation, the five-movement score was premiered on 1 December 1944 by Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky. Although symphonic in its conception, the composer eventually chose to abstain from naming the piece as one.

”This symphony-like orchestral work treats the single instruments of instrument groups rather in a concertant manner or soloist manner . This feature explains its title: Concerto for Orchestra”, the Bartók wrote in his 1944 program note.

Rooted in folk-idioms from both sides of the Atlantic, the composer’s idiosyncratic musical language is reinvented within a symphonic scheme, giving rise to an almost forty-minute sequence of orchestral tableaux of extraordinary sonic depth and narrative vividness, fashioned in newly-found clarity and translucence.

The first movement is primed by hauntingly nocturnal Andante non troppo introduction, paving the way for the dark-hued dance patterns of the main Allegro vivace. Grounded in architecture of contrasts, the opening movement constitutes one of Bartók’s most solid sonic statements. A witty scherzo ensues, launched with a side-drum solo, followed by a bassoon duet. A game of pairs, as suggested by its title, the movement is a masterful study of instrumental writing.

At the core of Concerto for Orchestra lies the gorgeous Elegia. One of Bartók’s most compelling accounts of night-music, the movement harks back to the daunting sonic ambiance of the Pool of Tears passage from Bartók’s sole operatic account, Bluebeard’s Castle, Op. 11 (1910-11/1912-21). An absorbing meditation on lugubrious dreamscapes, the Elegia is a masterstroke.

A swift change of mood comes to pass, as the music flows to the fourth movement and it’s absolute jest of iterrupted serenading. To complete the sounding arch, Concerto for Orchestra concludes with a whirling Presto finale, where the whole orchestra becomes entangled in astonishing fugal formations. Rounding of with a riveting coda, the score dances its way to ecstasy.

An ideal vehicle for displaying the orchestra’s full expressive potential, Bartók’s score was clad in ravishing raiments by the Lahti players. With Stasevska at the helm, Concerto for Orchestra was clad in beautifully layered sonorities, while maintaining incessant rhythmic drive; a worthy finale for an inspired season opening.

Lahti Symphony Orchestra

Dalia Stasevska, conductor

Jennifer Koh, violin

John Adams: Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) – Fanfare for orchestra

Missy Mazzoli: Violin Concerto (Procession) (2021)

Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116 (1943)

Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland

15 September 2022, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio

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