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Saturday, February 25, 2017

Concert Review: They're Only Northern Songs

Paavo Järvi leads the NHK Symphony Orchestra.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
(A version of this article was originally published in Japanese translation by the Association of Japanese Symphony Orchestras, reused with permission)
Paavo Järvi (right) leads the NHK Symphony Orchestra.
Photo © 2017 NHK Symphony Orchestra
The Baltic Sea in the northeast corner of Europe is flanked by the countries of Estonia and Finland, some fair distance from Japan and its capital city of Tokyo. On Sunday, February 12, the Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi brought the sounds of the Baltic to NHK Hall in Shibuya, the bustling shopping district that is home to the NHK ((Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai) Japan's broadcasting corporation.

Mr. Järvi, a member of Estonia's premium family of conductors, is the current music director of the NHK Symphony Orchestra. Founded in 1926, this ensemble serves as  the performing and recording orchestra of the NHK. Their home venue NHK Hall is a wide, acoustically bright space, designed along horizontal lines with sloping balconies and vast stage also used for rock concerts and operatic performance.

This matinee concert opened with the Japan premieres of two works by Estonian composers Arvo Pärt and Erke-Sven Tüür. Pärt is now 81, and the dean of of Estonian composers. His distinctive style, with slow-rolling choral writing and misty orchestral soundscapes put this little nation on the musical map. However, Silhouette: A Homage to Gustave Eiffel broke with what is traditionally thought of as the Pärt sound.

The work opened with a combination of tuned percussion, orchestra bells and bowed cymbal, a keening, unearthly sound like a muezzin call to prayer. This built to a slow pulse in the percussion, low winds and strings, gathering momentum as more instruments joined the rolling wave. The composition swelled and gathered momentum, reaching a mighty arch of sound. As it dwindled, only the song of the bowed cymbal sounded once more, fading into slow silence.

The accordion is the most unlikely of solo instruments. It is ill-suited to the concert hall, lacking in volume, power and (most seriously) composers willing to write concertos for what is essentially considered a folk instrument: the vulgar voice of the polkas of central and northern Europe. Happily, Erke-Sven Tüür has never been afraid of a challenge. Prophecy is a four-movement concerto for accordion and orchestra, with a solo part played by Latvian soloist Ksenjia Sidorova.

She entered with a massive squeeze-box strapped across her chest and set gently in front of a microphone which would solve the balance problems of the smaller accordion against the much larger voice of the orchestra. Mr. Tüür’s solution is to treat the accordion almost as if its reeds and bellows were members of the  woodwind section. Ms. Sidorova embarked on her first flight in the company of the solo flute, the voices of their instruments fluttering rising in diving like courting birds in the spring.

Over four contiguous movements, she unleashed fearsomely quick arpeggio runs down the keyboard while using the push buttons on the left and the full thrust of the bellows to amid deep roars that sounded like an army of angry contrabassoons. This was a bold and  inventive work, artfully accompanied  by the NHK players with special mention going to the woodwinds and percussion sections. An encore followed with the audience sitting politely listening to Ms. Sidorova play a longish solo piece that was a return to her instrument's more humble roots.

Sibelius called his Second Symphony "a reflection of his soul." The work was one of his biggest successes, taking to heart by the people of Finland in 1902 as they began to explore the option of separating from the Russian Empire. Speculation abounds as to a hidden political message in the folk dances and tramp and fanfares of this work but Sibelius, (like many of his countrymen) was notably reticent about any hidden meaning.

Here, Mr. Järvi offered a clean, crisp interpretation. He laid out the opening themes: shuddering cellos and strings, a folk-like dance in the woodwinds and the first rays of light from the brass. This exploded into glorious sunlight in the famous fourth movement. The effect of darkness-into-light was enhanced by the performance of the NHK players. They launched into the climactic phrases of the final movement, energized in their music making and exhileration the audience. 

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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.