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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Concert Review: The Man of the Hour

Ösmo Vänskä leads the National Symphony Orchestra.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Ösmo Vänskä in action.
Photo by Kyndall Harkness for vita.mn
The 2013-2014 season has offered few opportunities for East Coast listeners to hear Finnish conductor Ösmo Vänskä work his magic with the symphonies of his countryman Jean Sibelius. On Saturday evening, one of those opportunities presented itself as Mr. Vänskä led the National Symphony Orchestra in the second of two subscription concerts at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.


This has been particularly busy week for the conductor. Two days before, it was announced that Mr. Vänskä had agreed to return to his duties as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra after stepping down six months ago in the middle of an ugly lockout. Mr. Vänskä's tenure in Minnesota had returned this Midwest orchestra to national prominence, with numerous awards (including a Grammy) for its current cycle of Sibelius symphonies. However, the long lockout had scuppered an entire concert season, cancelled plans for a Carnegie Hall Sibelius cycle and did massive damage to the orchestra's standing. With his position restored, the conductor looked happy and confident as he stepped on the stage of the Concert Hall.


The Third was an early Sibelius experiment in symphonic form, a three-movement work anchored around a steady, drone-like rhythmic pulse in the low strings. This provides a launching pad for brass and woodwind to express themselves, alternating folk-like melodic fragments with mighty brass chorales that recall the nation-building of the Second. The NSO players responded aptly to Mr. Vänskä's taut direction, delivering a dramatic performance of this movement that was full of vitality and forward momentum.

That momentum slows in the second movement, a mysterious nachtmusik built around another string drone and a hesitant theme in the woodwinds. Mr. Vänskä molded a hypnotizing dream-scape, creating an enveloping, organic sound that was at both instructive and seductive. At the end of the movement, it stops in mid-phrase, which seemed to puzzle the audience. The finale (an early Sibelius experiment in compressing two distinct musical ideas into one large movement) was again led off by the woodwinds in a rollicking Finnish folk dance, before erupting into the symphony's triumphant conclusion.

The composer Kalevi Aho has been one of Finland's most productive voices in recent years, churning out twenty symphonies and writing fifteen concertos for most of the instruments in the modern symphony orchestra. His Clarinet Concerto, performed here with soloist Martin Fröst, is one of the better-known ones: an ambitious work written for this evening's soloist. The work persistently explores the upper register of the instrument against a background of that alternates between repeated, stuttering chords and a cornucopia of percussive complexity.

There is no doubt that Mr. Fröst is a master of his instrument, and his long partnership with Mr. Vänskä (they recorded this work with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra) resulted in a technically brilliant performance. And yes, there are moments of sublime expression and aural trickery in these five movements--especially in the opening where the clarinet's high melisma is suddenly switched to a transparent wash of violins. However, these five continuous movements with constant excursions into the upper range of clarinet t against a clattering percussion section proved grating, and even headache-inducing for the listener. Mr. Fröst and Mr. Vänskä followed with the clarinetist's standard encore, a playful klezmer written by the clarinetist's brother.

Following this excursion into modernity, the Kennedy Center audience seemed relieved that the last work on the program was the always reliable "Italian" Symphony by Felix Mendelssohn. Mr. Vänskä brought the same sense of welcome clarity here that he did to the Sibelius, only to have the orchestra respond to the music in a way that was distinctly lackluster. Although the assembled audience were thrilled by the familiar opening melody and closing double-dance that ends this boisterous work, it all seemed a little rote for the players.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.