By Janelle Gelfand
November 19, 2016
For the adventurous listener, Friday’s “Nordic Lights” program by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra had its own rewards.
First, there was the terrific violinist Jennifer Koh in an edgy and fiendishly difficult concerto by the Finnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. The sheer power of her performance was something to behold.
Then there was the debut of a wunderkind Finnish conductor named Santtu-Matias Rouvali, who at 31 already seems destined for a high-profile career. In the evening’s second half, he put on a balletic show while summoning rich orchestral sonorities in Sibelius’s last two symphonies, Nos. 6 and 7. It was a luminous interpretation of this cool Nordic music, and also a fitting tribute to Cincinnati’s first arctic blast of the season.
Rouvali is the latest in a line of impressive talent to emerge from the renowned Finnish school of conductors. The chief conductor of the Tampere Philharmonic was recently tapped to be principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden in the coming season.
But perhaps he also gained a few tips about charisma during his recent tenure as a fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by the flamboyant Gustavo Dudamel.
Mop-haired and long-limbed, Rouvali crouched, danced and flung out his arms as he conducted. Whether the listener found it mesmerizing or distracting, the conductor got excellent results from the musicians, who awarded him his own bow at the end.
Sibelius’ Symphony No. 6 may be the composer’s least-performed work, only played once before by the CSO (under Paavo Järvi in 2001). It does not have the towering majesty of the Finnish composer’s earlier symphonies, nor does it have any memorable themes. This is a symphony more about atmosphere and light.
Rouvali’s view emphasized transparency, which worked well in this fragmented sound world. The lightness of the strings, nuanced horn calls and atmospheric details in the winds gave the symphony’s four movements a mystical quality, at times. The conductor’s tempos were unhurried and well-judged. Only once, in the second movement, did the music fail to hang together. In the finale, the brass played with refined power and Rouvali beautifully guided the work to a serene conclusion.
The Seventh, a symphony in one movement, offered some of the “north woods” sound in horns and strings that is so typical of Sibelius. In the lighter moments, there was a remarkable gentleness to the conductor’s direction, and the musicians responded with expressive phrasing. In the finale, he swept up the brass and timpani with big, expansive gestures to a stunning finish.
In the first half, Koh turned in a technically superb performance in the Cincinnati Symphony premiere of Salonen’s Violin Concerto. Koh, a champion of new music with many awards to her name, was recently named Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year for 2016.
The inventive concerto, which is organized in four parts, was written for another violin virtuoso, Leila Josefowicz, in 2009.
Koh was clearly up to the task, and more. She tackled electrifying feats off the bat, with non-stop, propulsive playing against glimmering sounds in the orchestra. Then, in “Pulse I,” momentum ground to a halt, and she performed its meandering themes as if in slow motion.
It was an arresting performance to watch. Her music alternated between technical fireworks, sometimes punctuated by percussion, and slow, ethereal themes where the violinist’s phrasing was bleak and interior. Rouvali was an excellent partner, and the colorful instrumental palette – including gongs, marimba and contrabass clarinet – made it consistently interesting.
Ironically, the evening's most familiar music, Smetana’s “The Moldau,” was the least successful, lacking in either richness of sound or momentum.
The Cincinnati Symphony repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Taft Theatre, Downtown. Tickets: 513-381-3300, cincinnatisymphony.org.
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