Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Conductor
Stucky: Radical Light
Jonathan Roozeman: Cello
Sibelius: Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22 (Four Legends from the Kalevala)
Not a minute too soon after Labor Day, my 2017-2018 music season started last Tuesday evening with what could only be considered an excellent omen: A concert celebrating the centennial of Finland’s independence with works by Finnish native Jean Sibelius, maybe the most underrated composer in the classical repertoire, Finnish native Esa-Pekka Salonen, by all accounts the most prominent composer from up North these days, and Steven Stucky, his late American friend who was significantly influenced by Sibelius.
After rehearsals in Helsinki, and performances in Helsinki and Stockholm, the Juilliard Orchestra and the Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra brought their combined youthful forces to Alice Tully Hall’s wonderfully intimate and totally packed Starr Theater for the much anticipated final stop of their mini-tour in New York City. Not a bad way to get back to reality after the wonderfully long but yet still too short holiday weekend.
When with the enthusiasm of youth and the aplomb of expertise a music student deems a composition “so cool”, you know that it was something truly special. Fact is, the assertive assessment by one of the concert-goers sitting right in front of me on Monday night neatly summarized what we were all thinking at that point. The piece we had just heard, Steven Stucky’s Radical Light, had indeed come out overflowing with originality and verve in one swell movement. The music first felt delightfully random with its various twists and turns connected by smooth transitions, but it soon became clear that such seemingly unrestrained freedom could only be obtained if a carefully built and rock-solid structure was there to support it, and there it was. And we got to appreciate it all the more as the über-talented, fearless and eager musicians making up the huge orchestra delivered a downright thrilling performance under the precise baton of maestro Salonen.
Next, Esa-Pekka Salonen got to conduct his own 2000 composition Mania, which could be called an almost but not quite cello concerto. It did, however, keep the soloist, indefatigable Finnish-Dutch cellist extraordinaire Jonathan Roozeman, virtuosically scraping away ̶ Not an oxymoron in this case ̶ almost the entire 20 minutes while the drastically reduced, cello-less orchestra kept on swirling like an equally wild crowd around him. This was no easy listening for the most part, but there was something eerily fascinating in hearing all the unusual sounds, sometimes clashing sometimes blending, produced by the fired-up musicians mercilessly pushed to their limits.
After having winningly met the Mania challenge, we ventured way down south for the semi-obscure encore that Roozeman had selected, Intermezzo and Dance Finale of Gaspar Cassadó’s Cello Suite, which added unexpected languorous Spanish rhythms to the Finnish-centric evening.
After intermission, it was back to Finland for more traditional fare with finally the unofficial man of the hour, Jean Sibelius, and his sprawling Lemminkäinen Suite. Based on one of the heroes in the Finnish national epic the Kalevala, and originally meant for an opera that never came into being, the four symphonic poems boast emotional drama, sumptuous lushness and beautiful melodies, which all came out through big splashy waves and pointed details as vibrantly performed by the decidedly unstoppable orchestra.
The hour was getting late, and probably past the bedtime of some of the players on the stage, but that did not keep conductor and musicians from treating the ecstatic audience to a delicately elegiac "Valse triste" because one can never hear too much Sibelius.