If you stare at a globe with your eyeballs focused directly on Vienna, the city of Oslo is in the very extreme peripheral vision, along with Tunisia and Istanbul. Like other Scandinavian capitals, and St. Petersburg, Oslo hugs the 60th parallel, is mostly temperate if a bit gloomy, and is decidedly not a "suburb of musical Europe," as one critic called the city when its foremost orchestra toured the United States five years ago.
The Oslo Philharmonic, loosely founded in 1871 with Edvard Grieg as musical patron and established as a permanent body in 1919, has emerged in the past two decades as a major fixture on the international musical scene. Its recordings have been numerous and many of them superlative. Although the orchestra hasn't toured the United States since 1994, it is decidedly not a stay-at-home ensemble. The Oslo's current tour brought the group and its conductor, Mariss Jansons, to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Saturday afternoon.
The orchestra lived up to its reputation, and Jansons exceeded his already very high one. Jansons, a Latvian-born musician who made his early career in the old Soviet Union, has been with the Oslo Philharmonic since 1979, and repeatedly has chosen to stay with the group because of what he calls the "special chemistry" between conductor and players. Despite his firm ties to Oslo, however, he has never been out of demand elsewhere, and is currently the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Jansons suffered a serious heart attack in 1996, but he looks vigorous today, and conducts with both tiny refined gestures (he cues individual lines with a flick of a finger) and very big, athletic ones. The orchestra responds with what is indeed a remarkable chemistry, attentive, immediate and wholly committed. Unlike American orchestras, string players at the back of a section do not simply saw away at their instruments with glazed looks on their faces.
Nor does Jansons, who is a galvanizing and decisive presence, let the orchestra idly work its way through the music. On Saturday, he devoted the second half of the program to Mahler's Symphony No. 1, as sunny a take as Mahler ever produced on his usual materials: outdoorsy sounds, peasant dances and anguished, introspective string lines. It was an extraordinary and riveting performance in which none of Mahler's scene-setting music dragged, his climaxes were built stone by stone, and the various episodes of "overheard" music--bird calls, hunting horns, village wedding dances--followed one another casually, but logically, like thoughts and images come to us on a good walk.
In the third movement, with its penitential nursery songs and klezmerlike riots of ecstatic noise, Jansons created rhythmic effects that can be truly appreciated only in the muscles, which twitch at the thought of dancing. The spacious, ethereal afternoon sky with which the first movement opens was masterfully controlled, hovering indefinitely above the horizon. The fourth movement, which recalls the other three, showed off the orchestra's very fine horns and brass in the raucous finale.
Jansons brought with him violinist Gidon Kremer, also a native of Riga, and born only a few years after the conductor. Kremer took the un-solo line of Philip Glass's Violin Concerto, a work of particularly high quality by a composer who is often overextended and self-repetitive. Kremer played the unprepossessing violin line within the orchestral texture, at times almost inaudibly so. The effect worked. Glass's busy music never sounded quite so serene and pastoral as it did Saturday. Each of the work's three movements dissipates at the end into silence, and the cumulative effect was rather like standing alone, in a calm lake or ocean, with the water just lapping at your fingertips.
Kremer's music was very often simple-minded (not a demerit when the composer is Philip Glass), but his easy facility and acute ear made even simple octaves and fifths sound like a reverent descant above the gently churning orchestra. In more taxing and strident works, Kremer's tone can be dubious at times; not so, even for an instant, in Saturday's performance. His harmonics were especially well rendered and precise.
The concert, which was presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, began with Verdi's Overture to "I Vespri Siciliani," the composer's hefty prelude to his mostly neglected grand opera. The audience was still filing in during the opening pages, and the house lights remained on. A shame, but then overtures are meant, in part, to coax listeners still coated with dust from the real world into a quiet, receptive frame of mind.