Last night at Orchestra Hall, Minnesota Orchestra’s Sommerfest program highlighted Finnish fare. Osmo Vänskä, the favorite Finn of our Minnesota music scene, conducted a triptych of works by a three-generation lineage of his countrymen: The granddaddy, Jean Sibelius, his student Einojuhani Rautavaara, and Rautavaara’s protégée Kalevi Aho.
Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus, Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, Opus 61, opened the concert. Yes—for birds. Rautavaara recorded their songs in 1972 in the arctic marshlands nearby Finland’s northernmost university, the University of Oulu, which commissioned the work.
The first movement, “The Bog,” sets the scene, with gorgeously scored woodwinds coiling and uncoiling melodies. I could see a whole convention of winged beauties, congresses of various species from faraway places, gathering, communing and bickering. The shimmering of trilling flutes and clarinets merges into the recorded birdsong so effortlessly, and the orchestra’s imitations of their squawks, squeaks, and whistles was so spot-on that I found myself pondering the question, “Where does nature end and music begin?”
The sounds of real birds (on tape) open the second movement, “Melancholy,” with an unmistakable melody and rhythm to their songs. The orchestra takes more of a supporting role to the taped soloists here, anchoring the mood of the whole with hushed, slow-moving accompaniment.
Finally, “Swans Migrating” provides the drama of the landscape, aptly depicting the collection and departure of the great birds—the communication, the effort, and the movement are reflected in both real swan song and its counterfeit partner, the trombones.
Cantus Arcticus is a feat of coordination, as the orchestra is divided into sub-groups and there’s a human being in charge of running the tape, which sometimes is heard alone and sometimes needs to be fully synchronized with the orchestra. Osmo gets my bouquet for this one, but it was a captivating performance all around. My favorite comment of the night, overheard during intermission, was: “The bog part was very boggish, and I thought the migration went very well.”
Aho’s Symphony no. 9 for Trombone and Orchestra (Sinfonia Concertante no. 2), is for all intents and purposes a concerto for trombone, though the trombone functions for the majority of the work as a soloist within the texture and action of the music rather than showily sitting on top of it. The piece is a philosophical collision of new versus old, where new music flings itself forward with reckless nihilistic abandon, while Baroque dances persist gallantly. The debate thickens through the three-movement work, until the old music appears sort of sickly and gothic, constantly pummeled by the telegraphic pulse of the xylophone. But it persists to the end, leaving the argument unresolved.
Vänskä, in his remarks to the audience before the concert, said the score tells the percussionist to “kill the old music.” Sure enough, the timpani beat the harpsichord into submission with a few hard thwacks like a flyswatter to a butterfly. (Properly prepped, the audience giggled in appreciation, getting the joke.)
But it’s the trombone that truly tests the old order, even as the soloist—in last night’s case, the orchestra’s own Doug Wright—argues both sides, alternating between the modern trombone and its ancestor, the sackbut. While the sackbut sounded less native to him, his trombone was putty, easily stretched to the limits of high and low registers. The third movement’s cadenza offered Wright the opportunity to stun with showmanship—a grand oration with such extended techniques as multiphonics, flutter-tonguing and singing while playing, it is as bizarre and unaccountable as Heath Ledger’s Joker. Wright pulled sounds out of his horn ranging from a groaning hull of a great sinking ship to the throaty honking of an asthmatic goose. Between Batman and the trombone, it may be awhile before my dreams return to normal.
The audience shouted its appreciation before the last crashing note stopped reverberating—it is always gratifying to hear this sort of visceral response to new music.
Finally, after intermission, was Sibelius’ Symphony no. 5 in E-flat major, Opus 82, written and revised during World War I. A late Romantic-era composer, Sibelius was such an important contributor to Finland’s cultural identity that he was, and is still, regarded as a national hero, much like Verdi to Italians.
Sibelius, not surprisingly, seems to pour out of maestro Vänskä’s pores. He has a clear passion on the podium, and this symphony offered the evening’s best spotlight on the orchestra. What I have heard change since Vänskä took the helm has been his impact on the exactitude and enormity of playing. There is greater precision to the ensemble, but what thrills me most is the extended dynamic range, especially the barely audible pianissimos. The sound is tiny, but not thin. It’s rich and clear like beef broth. On the other end of the spectrum, the full-bodied fortissimos make the air in Orchestra Hall crackle with explosive energy, to the point that the guy a row ahead of me actually plugged his ears. The first movement allows all of these to come to the fore with snapping rhythmic motives, lugubrious melodies and a sweet, fleet scherzo. The whole symphony brims with complex energy created from simple rhythmic and melodic building blocks, and its resolution moves from a sense of expansiveness to explosive conclusion.
All in all, I’d call it a stunning concert.