Mark Volpe and his crew deserve a medal for putting together a fine group of replacements for James Levine’s dates in only a few months. Charles Dutoit and Hans Graf are well known to Boston audiences, less so Emmanuel Krivin; and John Storgårds, who conducted on July 16, is a total newcomer. Storgårds’s background is especially interesting, given his predilection for mixing up the basic repertory with little-known symphonic works from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, Walton, Korngold and Nino Rota, as well as contemporary compositions, like international premiere performances of Rautavaara’s new cello concerto with Truls Mørk and the same composer’s new percussion concerto with Colin Currie, Saariaho’s new clarinet concerto with Kari Kriikku, Gruber’s “Busking” with Håkan Hardenberger and a new concerto for orchestra by Rolf Wallin. Before studying to become a conductor, Storgårds was concertmaster of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra during Esa-Pekka Salonen’s tenure and continues to perform as a virtuoso violin soloist, a fact that has special relevance to his work in the Sibelius Violin Concerto at Tanglewood. Currently chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and artistic director of the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, Storgårds makes frequent guest appearance with major orchestras of Scandinavia, the UK, and Germany, as well as Australia, Japan, and so far in the US, the Cincinnati Orchestra, where he was immediately invited back. I shouldn’t be surprised if that happened in Boston as well. He is a conductor of authority and has a profound knowledge of the scores he conducted. In a way, it’s too bad that we didn’t get a chance to hear him in one of his trademark mixed programs, but in this one Storgård had a chance to show his personal sympathy for the music of his national composer and his own highly individual way of projecting it through an orchestra, every bit as rugged and uncompromising as the music itself.
Earlier in his career, Sibelius was idolized, but his music was soon recognized as conservative and imbued with the nationalistic sentiments of earlier generations. As his compositional activity fell off in the late 1920s, he could offer little to resist criticisms of his work and his politics as anti-progressive and passé. By the 1960s, when Mahler was being rediscovered, the controversy lapsed into indifference, but Sibelius survived to some degree in the UK, partly due to that way he fits with his British contemporaries and partly due to Colin Davis’ championship of his work, beginning in the late 1950s. For some fifty years now, Sir Colin has rehabilitated Sibelius for younger generations with performances which were highly refined in balance and color and which emphasized the coherence and flow of the symphonies to ears that were impatient towards the moody wanderings Sibelius had been known for. I certainly owe my own affection for Sibelius to Sir Colin’s representation of him.
Storgårds came with something entirely different. His method of presenting a piece to an audience is entirely in the moment. Each work is what it is for its duration, and each section of each work has its own integrity and power. He dispensed with his baton for Finlandia and Valse Triste and conducted both of them with a more or less true agogic technique, that is, guiding the shape of the phrases and rhythm with gestures of the hand and arm, rather than stroking out the beat of each measure with the stick. In these he made his approach to Sibelius clear, and although he used a baton and a more conventional technique in the concerto and the symphony, they reflected the same view of the composer as an artist who, immersed in intense emotions of his own, departed from classical form to concentrate on expression. In both of the tone poems, Storgårds led the audience into Sibelius’ progression of mental states through his arresting opening gestures, fully weighted pauses, and melodic phrases moulded for emotive weight rather than moving the listener through the whole of a well shaped composition. The strings played with great substance and warmth, as did the brass, which often entered with biting, even harsh attacks. Atmosphere and feeling justified themselves in these powerful readings, and Sibelius came across as a more daring composer than he is often given credit for. The orchestra followed Storgårds with energy and commitment, and, from their behavior during the enthusiastic applause, they clearly enjoyed playing for him.
Nikolaj Znaider brought a markedly different mentality to the mix. He tempered his consummate virtuosity with an aristocratic poise and restraint, using his command of tone color as an intellectual tool to probe the many different facets of Sibelius’ invention. In this, he and Storgård’s had an important trait in common, and both approached the concerto as a work of great complexity, teeming with ideas, so rich that they are almost more than its classical structure can bear. (The Violin Concerto is as close as Sibelius comes to Mahler.) For the rest, I cannot imagine more sympathetic accompaniment that what Storgårds provided. He seemed both to feel and to think his way into Znaider’s playing with a unique capability for identification, no doubt aided by his own secondary career as a violin soloist. (Znaider himself doubles as a conductor.) Their performance was a monumental reading of the work that emphasized its originality and modernity, and this made a stark contrast to the approach of many violinists, who tend to assimilate it to romanticism. Znaider produced a consistently warm, burnished sound from the 1741 Guarneri he plays (which once belonged to Fritz Kreisler), but this only proved to be the basis for the extraordinary range of coloration he brought to Sibelius’ writing — an incredibly versatile language for his analysis of the work. A few years ago, I stated some criticisms of Znaider’s impressive account of the Elgar Violin Concerto, because I felt his restraint and intellectuality got in the way of Elgar’s elegiac sensitivities. Here, in contrast, the Sibelius Concert only gained from his rigor and insight.
Using a baton with the same eloquence and precision he exercised in the Violin Concerto, Storgård brought an immense range of expression to his interpretation of the Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, presenting it, like the other works, as a highly original, modern work. In this program, as I’ve mentioned, he made each piece stand alone, as individual creations, each with its own coloristic, harmonic, and psychological palette. The buildup of dissonant chords in the last movement, just before the final section of it, was without a doubt one of the most thrilling moments I have experienced in the concert hall. I cannot remember any other conductor who went so far in bringing out the harsh wildness of this amazing passage. The Fifth, in its symphonic monumentality and singleness of purpose, did not show as many psychic nooks and crannies as the Violin Concerto, but Storgård once again produced an exploratory reading, which in turn brought out the exploratory character of Sibelius’ composition. In general these performances revealed Sibelius as a great musical adventurer, one of extraordinary bravery in creatively opening himself to terrifyingly dark states of mind, which could well lead the way to insanity. In Sibelius’ case it was chronic depression, alcoholism, and a final block to his creativity.
In John Storgårds, the BSO found a superb conductor for the Sibelius program James Levine left behind. I rather think Storgårds had more original insights into the music than Levine would have shown. In fact they may well have found something more than a superb guest conductor. Although he lacks the international “high profile” of Chailly or Nelsons, Storgård’s broad interests in music, the substance and interest of the programs he has initiated in Finland, as well as his technical skill as a conductor are enough to make him an especially appealing candidate for the empty music director’s position at the Boston Symphony. I hope the committee will give him very serious consideration.
Michael Miller, a writer and photographer based in Williamstown, MA, is editor and publisher of the Berkshire Review for the Arts, an online magazine which covers classical music, opera, theater, cinema, art, photography, architecture, travel, and food and drink, wherever they may be found.