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Finnish Sounds Suit NSO Well

By Robert Battey
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 9, 2007

The many empty seats at last night's National Symphony Orchestra performance at the Kennedy Center were a mystery, given the appealing, unhackneyed program of Finnish music, led by one of the major conductors of our day, Osmo Vanska. His appearances have become the high points of recent NSO seasons, and last night certainly added to his luster. Vanska offered two Sibelius works -- one exceedingly rare, the other his most frequently performed piece -- surrounding a local premiere of a formidable 2001 composition by Kalevi Aho titled "Symphonic Dances: Hommage à Uuno Klami."

Vanska, who has energized the Minnesota Orchestra since 2003, is a musician's musician. A former orchestral clarinetist, he is no martinet, but derives his authority from mutual respect. One sees the fruits of careful but efficient rehearsal in his concerts; he doesn't conduct what doesn't need conducting, but with relatively spare gestures he draws extraordinarily expressive performances from the NSO. He joins maestro Leonard Slatkin in the irritating habit of putting down his baton for "intimate" passages, and is no more successful than anyone else at taming the orchestra's brass and percussion sections, which obliterate the strings at will. But he projects mature authority and had the musicians on their toes throughout the concert.

Sibelius's "Rakastava" ("The Lover") is a string orchestra arrangement of an early a cappella choral work. Set forth in the composer's familiar purple-gray soundscape and largely in the minor mode, the piece seemed somewhat at odds with its yearning, erotic subtext. But it was a welcome curiosity.

Aho's new work was created as music for the final act of an unfinished full-length ballet by the late Finnish composer Klami. One can't say how successfully Aho's work blends in with Klami's, but to the extent that he was working under stylistic restrictions, Aho has produced an assured and at times exhilarating work. It uses familiar harmonic syntax common to many recent works from Finland and the Baltics; one hears generic dance rhythms at times, and the work ends with a lovely gentle chorale.

There is always a risk in presenting unfamiliar works for the stage in concert. When the music follows a narrative and mise-en-scene unknown to most listeners, it can leave some of us behind, as events and musical gestures are driven by externalities rather than solely the musical argument. In general, Aho's handling of the orchestra is masterly, with woodwind writing that recalls Ravel. But why use a synthesizer to depict wind? Strauss, Wagner and certainly Sibelius evoked the effect far more powerfully with musical instruments than the electronic intrusion Aho used.

But this was substantial, at times gripping, new music, presented by a strong advocate; it was everything that a modern orchestra concert should be about.

After intermission came the beloved Sibelius Violin Concerto, with Leonidas Kavakos. Kavakos, dressed entirely in black, tall and brooding, cuts a most dramatic figure. Vanska and Kavakos bring an especially deep, well-honed authority to the Concerto; together (on the BIS label) they have not only recorded it, but recorded the virtually unknown original version that the composer withdrew immediately after its first performance. Their understanding of the music paid dividends in every bar.

Kavakos's left hand is almost frighteningly accurate but not naturally expressive (vibrato is intense but intermittent). He began the long opening paragraph with a lonely, inchoate quality that built up most impressively, and his cadenzas in the first movement were spectacular. Those who wonder why people are crazy enough to pay seven-figure sums for a violin, need simply listen to the unique iridescent sound Kavakos drew from the G string of his 1692 Stradivarius in the Adagio. Music, player and instrument fuse into a single, trembling utterance, eclipsing everything around it.

The concert will be repeated tonight and tomorrow.

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