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NSO's Sibelius: Sublime, Even In Its Silences

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 5, 2005; Page C05

Jean Sibelius composed at least three kinds of pieces -- masterworks (the symphonies, the violin concerto), frivolities (the depressingly tame piano music, which wouldn't sound out of place in a Victorian parlor) and the deeply weird. The National Symphony Orchestra started with one of his very strangest utterances -- a neglected tone poem titled "The Oceanides" -- yesterday afternoon at the Kennedy Center.

The conductor was Osmo Vanska, who may be our finest Sibelian right now. He treats the composer neither as a folksy nationalist (à la Edvard Grieg) nor as a wild-eyed, post-Tchaikovskian romantic, but as the highly original, extremely quirky modernist that he was. Indeed, "The Oceanides" -- which has the distinction of being the only piece that Sibelius ever conducted in the United States (in that teeming hub of musical activity, Norfolk, Conn.!) -- could almost have been written 90 days, rather than 90 years, ago, such is its mixture of disparate and seemingly contradictory elements.

Osmo Vanska conducted superbly. It was one of the NSO's best concerts of the year. (Kennedy Center)

"The Oceanides" makes its impression through its sounds and moods, its flutters and pulsations, rather than its melodies. Indeed, it is absolutely unhummable, which is no rarity today but was decidedly uncommon in 1914. Moreover, Sibelius "composed" silence in a manner that treated it not as a mere absence of sound but as a powerful musical element in and of itself. Vanska honors those silences, to the point where even the quietest rumble from an instrument stands out like a dash of color on a white canvas. In this context, the effect of a full crescendo -- such as the one the NSO unleashed late in "The Oceanides" -- is exhilarating.

The Brahms Violin Concerto followed immediately. Lisa Batiashvili was the soloist. She plays with brilliance, ferocity and immaculate technical assurance. If her conception of Brahms is rather on the stern side, she nevertheless made the concerto absolutely convincing. Vanska softened the rendition somewhat, with a serene and ruminative sweetness in purely orchestral passages.

After intermission -- and after a very long pause to make sure the audience was seated and absolutely quiet before he would make music -- Vanska led another work by Sibelius, the Symphony No. 5, to close the afternoon. It was, bar none, the finest and most interesting performance of this music I've heard: Whole sections took on hitherto unsuspected qualities, as though Vanska were mining new elements from the composer's mysterious dark loam.

He is a remarkably demonstrative conductor -- using deep knee bends to quiet the orchestra, for example, or waving his arms like a hypnotist to summon the most glorious and shattering climaxes from the NSO brass. And yet, for all of the moment-to-moment effects, there was the sense of a cool, keen, overriding intelligence. Perhaps Vanska -- currently the music director of the Minnesota Orchestra -- might be considered as a possible successor to Leonard Slatkin when Slatkin departs in 2008. In any event, this was one of the NSO's best concerts of the year -- and it will be repeated tonight at 8.

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