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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Concert Review: Sakari Oramo conducts Shostakovich and Sibelius

Thursday Night's New York Philharmonic concert featured Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1, a difficult composition that requires both athletic and musical ability from its soloist, in this case the Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili. Led by Finnish maestro Sakari Oramo (currently the principal conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra), it was perfectly paired with two Sibelius compositions that evoked the power and spirit of the Finnish woods.

Composed in 1947-48, the First Violin Concerto is, like many major orchestral works from Shostakovich's pen, a series of mixed and coded messages. Bitiashvili attempted to decode the work for the audience, and for the most part she succeeded. The concerto's somber opening echoes the composer's emotional torment. Having survived the Second World War he still lived in terror of the Soviet government. featured mournful legato phrases, melting into each other in a cry from the heart. Exceptional playing and phrasing made this a compelling opening, ably supported by Oramo and the orchestra.

Literally living in fear of another Soviet artistic purge, Shostakovich was, understandably, reluctant to make political or personal statements in his work. They are present but hidden in the codes of the music, in the choice of a manic scherzo or a grim passacaglia movement. This concerto, written for 20th century violin virtuoso David Oistrakh) contains both, shot through with some exceptionally difficult violin writing. Lisa Batiashvili played with energy and vigor, never forgetting the emotional pathos which is at the core of all great Shostakovich works.

The second half of the concert featured the music of Jean Sibelius, the great Finnish composer. His Sixth Symphony is the most cheerful of Sibelius' seven essays in that genre. (OK, it's Sibelius so it's not exactly milk and cookies but the Sixth seems to avoid the obsession with death and self-destruction that characterized much of that composer's work.) This is a pastoral composition, evoking the lighter side of the Finnish wilderness, traipsing through the great forests of the north with a sunny outlook and cheerful orchestral colorings expressed through the use of church modes instead of the more conventional key system.

Here, the Sixth served as perfect counterpoint to Tapiola a powerful invocation of the dark side of forest living. The piece is named after Tapio, the god of the forests who appears in the Kalevala, Finland's national epic. Sakari Oramo conducted with vigor and a strong sense of rhythm. The big gestures were played with punch and power, but none of the magnificent little details were missed. From the carefree passages of the Sixth to the terrifying arctic wind that cuts through the final pages of Tapiola, this was an excellent interpretation of Finland's national composer.
Photo: Sakari Oramo in action. © 2006 Warner Classics

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