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Nordic Mythos and Majesty at the BSO

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Composer Outi Tarkiainen with John Storgårds (Michael J. Lutch photo)

Devout concertgoers braved the rain to catch sonic glimpses of Nordic mythos and majesty as the Boston Symphony Orchestra concluded its first of two “Music of the Midnight Sun” cycles this past Saturday.

Though the cycle title sets nature as the primary theme, the evening of debuts yielded much more in the way of great musical storytelling, virtuosity, variety, and brilliant programmatic construction. This concert of novelties offered us two premieres: Outi Tarkiainen’s Midnight Sun Variations and Carl Nielsen’s Violin Concerto, a violin soloist debut (Pekka Kuusisto), and two rarely heard Sibelius tone poems (The Oceanides and The Bard) joined the seminal Tapiola. This feast for the senses and mind proved to be exceptionally memorable.  

Midnight Sun Variations opened in a whirl of kaleidoscopic effects; downward and upward cascades of notes from the woodwinds, accompanied by the hazy lull of microtones and false harmonics in the strings. Above this background, the clarinet illuminated the primordial scene in a Bartók-like melody. One cannot help but compare Tarkiainen’s Variations with Strauss’s Alpensinfonie or Zarathustra; the latter depict sunrise as an explicit crescendo, while the Midnight Sun offers an artful realism to the passage of time in naturalistic contemplation. The orchestral effects of each variation illustrated the slow shifts in unceasing midsummer light. The hairpin (<>) shape of the work built to a singular climax, one harkened by staggered brass entrances, glissandi, and timpani strikes, before relenting in a Sibelius-like lyrical lament from the strings. Slipping away as gentle rays of northerly sunlight, trills from guest concertmaster Robyn Bollinger spun in contrast to the consonant chords that concluded the soundscape. John Storgårds helmed the BSO with expert ease, shaping and balancing the challenging score ahead of the beat.

Nielsen’s rare 1911 Violin Concerto served as the platform for violinist Pekka Kuusisto’s playful and compelling virtuosic storytelling. It comes as no surprise that Nielsen’s concerto had never been played in Boston. The concerto is technically thorny, thematically shifting, and atypical in many respects for a concerto of the early 20th century. Here, we experienced a perfect symbiosis of opus, soloist, and conductor.

The first of the two movements opened with a declamatory minor chord, hurling the soloist straight into battle with a pedal-point cadenza. Seemingly endless held tones in the horns provided the background (staggered breathing?). Kuusisto meandered above with ease, captivating immediately with a sheen of sonority along with seldom seen bow vibrato. Brought to a gentle landing in the pastoral Largo section, passages of virtuosic passion eventually subsided to another denouement reminiscent of Elgar’s Nimrod. A direct transition to the Allegro cavallarésco offered an adventurous counterpoint in material strikingly similar to Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole. Balance was perfectly arbitrated between Storgårds and Kuusisto, no doubt due to both Nielsen’s orchestration and the obligatory special listening required by the BSO in playing a new (old) work.

Kuusisto’s capricious character shape-shifted every aspect of the outing with an ease of virtuosity rarely seen in action. The violin served simply as a medium for expression; every line and articulation brimmed with elasticity as this great storyteller spun his tales. Applause greeted the first movement’s conclusion eliciting a wry remark from Kuusisto: “Should we stop?”

The elegiac mood of the second movement’s opening Adagio drifted away, only abated by the comically played, jazzy minor seventh by Kuusisto preceding the Rondo section. More humor from soloist and orchestra delighted during an inverted (and devilishly difficult) entrance of the rondo theme. The minore section taken senza vibrato added a particularly sardonic contrast, all before the final cadenza of the concerto: a composite of themes, leaning toward the minor mode, all came to us with the same virtuosic abandon as before. More dry humor ensued as the seriousness of the cadenza gave way to the jubilant rondo; the following orchestral tutti elicited a yawn of blasé ease from Kuusisto.

Pekka Kuusisto and John Storgårds  (Michael J. Lutch photo)

If the Nielsen did not already convince us of Kuusisto’s singular talent, his traditional Finnish folk-dance encore surely did. This tune, dedicated to the Devil, Kuusisto likewise offered with special thanks to the BSO for their consummate collaboration. Distorted, eerie sul tasto tones crescendoed from pianississississimo to full forte as a raucous Finnish tavern scene zoomed into focus. An A-B-A dance, immense dynamic contrasts mixed alongside light foot stomps further painted the picture. The diabolus spun, then slowed from whirling speed with a loud stomp from Kuusisto, sending us into the night: rapturous applause.

A  contrasting triptych of Sibelius tone poems concluded the concert, the three constructing a symphonic unity unto itself. Reduced as it had been to just Tapiola on Friday night, the aesthetic effect of this wonderful BSO cycle must surely have been less potent. Aallottaret (“The Oceanides,” or “The Ocean Nymphs”) opened the trio in pulsating lilts of waves from the strings, shimmering in water to the same effect Tarkiainen painted in rays of midnight sunlight. Immediately, the lush and sonorous Sibelius sound world greeted the listener, sumptuously coaxed by Storgårds. From great heights of light, we now found ourselves in an underwater expedition of sound, the oceanic depths traversed most pictorially by the effects of the muted strings. A similar hairpin like structure to the Tarkiainen, the orchestra came to an immense climax wrought by the brass and ostinato strings, before a quickly tapered conclusion. Robert Kirzinger’s notes explained that Sibelius wrote this on commission for the Norfolk Music Festival in Connecticut. Sibelius premiered it on these shores during the same 1914 trip in which he accepted an honorary degree from Yale, resulting in what biographer Andrew Barnett described as “perhaps the greatest triumph he would ever experience as conductor.”

The Bard followed this display, as a pleading adagio depicting a mythic character from Ancient Scandinavian legend. Strums from solo harp, the great storyteller of this tale, urged the episodic sections gently forward. Tapiola, Sibelius’s final symphonic masterpiece, completed the set in another mythical depiction: the Finnish forest god, Tapio. If the previous works had not already made it clear, this one made the final argument for nature as the greatest storyteller of them all: a primordial, volatile beauty going beyond all myth and legend, stretching to the ineffable. Stravinsky wrote his Rite of Spring, but here, Sibelius offers us an equally compelling Rite of Winter.

After a blustery opening, all sense of time is suspended, and for nearly twenty minutes, the music uneasily meanders about, breezy sighs and freezing gusts from the strings rustling leaves on branches and on the forest floor. Pregnant rests seem to stretch on interminably…Throughout, the standoffish opening theme is always present, and though it appears in many guises and variations, it arrives at none that make it any less unsettling. Ostensibly this is a peaceful work overall, but it is peaceful only in the sense of primeval nature being left to its own devices, and when finally the piece drifts to an end with three unmistakable and unexpected pulses of a pure major triad, it’s hard not to wonder if everything doesn’t seem just a little too quiet.  – Jay Goodwin

Nicolas Sterner is a conductor, cellist, educator, and writer based in Cambridge, MA. Active as a freelancer and organizer of concerts, he is the founder and collaborative director of the Chromos Collaborative.  Most recently, his “Courtyard Concert” series with Chromos received public recognition by the Boston Globe, as part of their the Covid-19 pandemic piece “What we lost, what we found.” For more information, please visit Nicolas’ professional portfolio at www.nicolas-sterner.com.

3 Comments »

3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. It was a beautiful, interesting concert, even without a symphony on the program. At Thursday’s concert, the audience seemed ready to applaud after the first movement of Nielsen’s violin concerto, but no one wanted to be the first, so there was an uncomfortable silence in the hall. Although I’ve always enjoyed this very likable concerto on recordings, experiencing the piece in concert, with such an amiable soloist, revealed how much I had been missing.

    Tarkiainen’s piece was also a pleasure to hear, and the Sibelius trilogy was a wonderful idea to conclude the concert.

    By the way, do you have the feeling that this “Midnight Sun” series was not really planned as such, but that the BSO decided to put that label on these two concerts after the concerts were programmed? Otherwise, why couldn’t they find even one worthwhile Swedish composition (e.g., Berwald, Alfvén, Larsson, Pettersson, etc.) to include in the second program?

    Comment by George Hungerford — March 5, 2024 at 1:01 pm

  2. At the outset, kudos to the BSO and Andris Nelsons for encouraging and engaging top-notch guest conductors to lead the BSO (not every BSO principal conductor has been as generous). Storgards is one of the very best out there and has has a notable reputation in Europe. (His memorable Sibelius 6th and 7th with the BSO in 2019 still lingers). I attended the Thursday morning dress rehearsal (as opposed to one of the three concerts) and loved the introductory interview with the composer Tarkiainen and hearing her explanation for the influences on her shimmering composition. I also appreciated how well the orchestra, soloist and conductor engaged in the Nielsen. The violin soloist Kuusisto (who is also a conductor in his own right) was not only brilliant playing the piece from memory but kept everyone in the audience smiling during the rehearsal, especially during a broken bow hair moment. The moody Sibelius tone poems sounded convincing in rehearsal, and the conductor knew the pieces inside out and was generous with his cues. Based on the rehearsal, BSO audiences were in for a very satisfying weekend. Perhaps this wasn’t the program to add another symphony, but I would enjoy a BSO program with one of the Kurt Atterberg symphonies.

    Comment by Stuart Kaufman — March 5, 2024 at 8:32 pm

  3. Interesting program. Unfortunately, those of us in the second balcony were treated to an accompaniment to the music being played on stage, as the motors of the oscillating lights could be heard loud and clear.
    The powers that be know of this problem, I hope they fix it or do away with the lights.

    Comment by Cecilia — March 8, 2024 at 12:54 am

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