Phenomenal take on the Adams Violin Concerto from Leila Josefowicz, the Helsinki Philharmonic and Susanna Mälkki 

Leila Josefowicz photographed by © Tom Zimberoff

Given in one of those performances where everything just clicks together, John Adams’s Violin Concerto (1993) was immaculately served on Friday evening by Leila Josefowicz and the Helsinki Philharmonic under Chief Conductor Susanna Mälkki. As the score unfolded in its sounding reality, all parameters were beautifully aligned, resulting in musical vision of unusual depth and absorbing intensity. 

Since its 1994 world premiere in Minnesota, the concerto has become a contemporary classic, in no small part thanks to Josefowicz’s continued advocacy. The violinist first picked up the then-new concerto early in her career, while taking her very first steps on the road that would eventually define the very shape of her musical life.  

”John heard one of my very first performances of the concerto, and then, all of a sudden, it was amazing, because after that, many, many times a year, we played together this piece around the world. For me this was just like the sky opening. It was like a religious experience for me, because I’d never worked with a living composer before. Suddenly, music was alive and breathing, and this was the creator, and I got to play with him. And I knew this was the path for me”, the violinist recollected in our recent Adventures in Music interview

The circa thirty-five-minute concerto is cast in three movements; an extended opening arch, followed by atmospheric Chaconne and closing with a tour-de-force finale. Coming in the heels of The Death of Klinghoffer (1989-90) and Chamber Symphony (1992), the Violin Concerto is quite far removed from the Minimalist-tinged sphere of Adams’s early works. Both the solo part and the orchestral scoring are abundant with virtuosity; seemingly endless melodies, clad in exquisite harmonies. 

In the course of the fourteen-minute opening movement, musical tapestry of dazzling invention is gradually unfolded, propelled by an omnipresent ground pulse. Augured by strings and synthesiser, the soloist enters on bar two, and keeps playing throughout the movement almost without break. Invigoratingly hyper-melodic, the violin part lays down its ever-permuting narrative, as the orchestra of duple winds and horns, trumpet, two synths, timpani, percussion and strings joins the fabric in splendidly varied line-ups. 

Following a short but formidably focused cadenza, the music cools down to a subtle coda, bridging into the Chaconne. Subtitled Body through which the dream flows after a poem by Robert Hass, the second movement comes off as evocative night-scene. Hovering mid-air, the violin line travels through a sonic landscape delicately laid down by the orchestra in the manner of a wanderer entering through the gates of sleep. Abundant with elusive detail, the movement is one of the finest musical passages penned by Adams. 

Living up to its title, the Toccare finale is founded in tactile virtuosity. Engaging the orchestra in a wild dance, the soloist embarks upon a boisterous quest into the realm of rousing rhythms. Swift and steadfast, the music keeps swirling around with utmost virtuosity, before plunging into a breathtaking final duet between the solo violin and timpani, bringing the concerto to its riotous close. 

A powerhouse performance form Josefowicz, the orchestra and Mälkki, the amount of shared energy onstage was simply phenomenal. Ever in perfect accord, the soloist and the orchestral players delivered a reading like no other. Bound together by Mälkki’s pristine alignment, the Helsinki Philharmonic tackled Adams’s orchestral writing with flying colours, while Josefowicz feasted with the solo part with utmost dedication, rooted in her matchless command over the music. 

Twenty seven years after its Finnish premiere by the same orchestra, conducted by the composer, with Vasko Vassilev as soloist, there was an aura of homecoming in the air, as the concerto was resounded under the guidance of Josefowicz and Mälkki. A milestone performance, the evening will be long remembered. 

Keeping up with the momentum, an elated reading of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major, WAB 104 (1873-74/1878-80) was heard on the second half. Best-loved among the Bruckner cycle, perhaps, the sixty-five-minute symphony is a tremendous affair. Performed in its most solid revision, the symphony is cast in four movements, each splendidly evocative and well proportioned. 

The only one among Bruckner’s symphonies to bear an official subtitle – that is to say the Romantic – the Fourth is conceived in almost cinematic orchestral dramaturgy. The Bewegt, night zu schnell first movement opens with a glorious horn call, sounded over string tremolo, summoning the entire orchestra of duple winds, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani and strings into being. From there, a clear-cut musical architecture begins to take shape, yielding to an astounding sonic sequence. Developed cyclically, there are three theme groups at play in the opening movement, each rooted in coloristic identity of their own. Concluding with a full orchestra statement of the opening material, the first movement is a veritable colossus. 

The ensuing Andante, quasi allegretto is devised in five-part overall form. The music assumes more dark-hued tone, as if delivering a symphonic account of some age-old legend of special magnificence. The Scherzo, in its turn, is fashioned in the manner of a great hunt, driven by horn signals and their echoes, with brief repose provided by the two-page Trio. As always with Bruckner, the Scherzo da capo repeats the movement’s opening note-to-note, leaving the overall design of pacing to the conductor.  

The musical circle is completed by Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell finale, where Bruckner’s symphonic design reaches zenith with an otherworldly vision manifested in sound. Enthralling in its scope and scale, the symphony is a wondrous entity. 

Luminously served in performance by the Helsinki Philharmonic and Mälkki, the Fourth Symphony was clad in awe-inspiring sonic raiments. Each section in top shape, the orchestra realised Mälkki’s architectural plan with remarkable fortitude, resulting in a musical reading of admirable solidity. Be it the soaring solo horn or the sweeping viola section, not to mention all those key contributions from the winds, each and every member of the Helsinki Philharmonic lived and breathed together all the way from the very first tremolo bar to the final tutti chord, giving rise to a spellbinding performance; orchestral epiphany, so to speak.    

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Susanna Mälkki, conductor

Leila Josefowicz, violin

John Adams: Violin Concerto (1993)

Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major, WAB 104 ”Romantic” (1873-74/1878-80)

Music Centre, Helsinki

Friday 16 September, 7 pm 

© Jari Kallio

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