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Nordic Cool at Kennedy Center opens with potluck

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The Kennedy Center really does put on cool festivals. But few have been saddled with such an un-cool name as “Nordic Cool,” the celebration of all things Scandinavian that had its official opening with a concert of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra on Tuesday night.

The opening was further hampered by the need to represent all five of the main countries involved; the concert included a piece, or excerpt, from Finland (Jean Sibelius), Iceland (Jon Leifs), Sweden (Hugo Alfven), Norway (Edvard Grieg) and Denmark (Carl Nielsen), omitting only Greenland and the Faroe and Aland Islands. Enhancing the sense of programming by committee were the obligatory opening-night speeches from the stage from the Kennedy Center’s president, Michael M. Kaiser, and Scandinavian luminaries.

The performance, however, was pretty hot.

Sakari Oramo has been the orchestra’s music director since 2008 and a rising star on the orchestral scene for a while before that; his previous music director post was a decade-long stint as Simon Rattle’s successor in Birmingham, U.K. His current orchestra is a robust group with a slightly phlegmatic burr in its sound, energetic but not, on Tuesday, quite precise. At the opening, slightly smeared chord of “Finlandia,” I wondered whether they were struggling with the concert hall’s challenging acoustics, which (as National Symphony Orchestra players will tell you) can make it difficult for musicians onstage to hear one another. A few balance issues might have borne this out, but they also might have simply been the result of the group’s somewhat anarchic assault on “Finlandia,” offered with enough verve and crackle to break through the walls of somnolence raised by the speeches.

In marketing Nordic Cool, the Kennedy Center might have made it clearer that this intermission-less concert, about 75 minutes in length, was as much an amuse-oreille as a full classical-music event. Aurally, the most unusual segment was a single movement of Jon Leifs’s first “Saga” symphony, which is made up of five movements representing five different heroes of Icelandic epics. This one, a scherzo, was bracingly different, with burbling bassoons and jarring syncopations, at once fresh and clownish, amiable and rambling, coming to an evanescent end like a burst soap bubble.

Sweden and Norway got the short, not to say the pops-concert, end of the stick. Not that there’s anything wrong with Alfven’s “So Take My Heart” or “Solveig’s Song” from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” — far from it; even if the titles don’t ring a bell, the tunes would probably strike you as familiar. And the Danish soprano Inger Dam-Jensen offered them very prettily, in a bell-toned voice with a lot of fluttery vibrato.

But the real meat of the evening was Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, offered complete — at last — and with a big meaty sound indeed. Oramo plunged in with the turbulence of a propeller, churning up great depths and throwing up mud in the process, and proceeded to lead the orchestra through ups and downs and into a final cacophonous conflagration, throwing out explosions of timpani, that thoroughly bore out the work’s epithet of “inextinguishable.” As a whole, the evening offered brute strength under a veneer of refinement, and the orchestra made the most of it. Now let’s bring them back for the complete Leifs piece.

Nordic Cool

continues at the Kennedy Center through March 17. Complete program listings are on the Kennedy Center site, kennedy-center.org. Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson plays Monday, and Anne Sofie von Otter gives a recital March 4, among many other musical offerings.

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