by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Feb. 14 and 21, 2005.
On a recent night in Minneapolis, as the temperature plunged toward sixteen below zero, an unlikely midwinter carnival took place in Orchestra Hall. The Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, who became the music director of the Minnesota Orchestra in 2003, had decided to present a symphony by his countryman Kalevi Aho, and the orchestra chose to spotlight rather than hush up this contemporary intrusion into the gated community of “great composers.” A folk ensemble sang Finnish songs in the lobby. Finnish arts and crafts were for sale alongside characteristic pastries, including homemade snickerdoodles, which I enjoyed too much to question whether they were really Finnish. The hubbub drew in curious passersby. A couple walked up to the ticket window and asked, “What kinda show ya got tonight?” The cashier answered, “We’ve got some Mozart and some”—she paused—“Aho.” The couple blanched. “But Osmo is here,” she added. That closed the deal.
Vänskä is hugely popular in Minnesota, and this concert showed why. First came a richly voiced “Magic Flute” Overture. Then Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27, with Emanuel Ax as the crisp, heartfelt soloist. Finally, the Aho—the composer’s Seventh Symphony, subtitled “Insect Symphony.” Each movement depicts a different insect species, with a human allegory that’s easily detectable. Butterflies dance an insouciant foxtrot and tango; bohemian dung beetles lament lost time; worker ants march in totalitarian lockstep. The sequence of moods and styles seemed haphazard at first, but the last two movements delivered such a psychic double whammy—the Fascistic march followed by a desperately lovely lullaby for cello (dayflies)—that the structure felt secure. The orchestra played with the kind of furious finesse that every composer prays for. The audience responded with a yelling ovation. No one was talking about Mozart on the way out.
In the past few years, Vänskä has gone from relative obscurity to the front ranks of conductors. In city after city, he has shaken orchestras out of their routines and audiences out of their slumbers. A clarinettist by training, he started out in 1985 as the principal guest conductor of the Lahti Symphony—named for its home city, in the south of Finland. Thanks to a series of Sibelius recordings on the BIS label, word spread that Vänskä had somehow put together a first-class ensemble in a town of a hundred thousand people. In 1996, he appeared in front of a half-empty Carnegie Hall with the Iceland Symphony. Sibelius’s Second was the main work, and by the end of the second movement that trusty warhorse had become a moody, fearsome beast. Of all the out-of-town orchestra concerts I’ve heard at Carnegie, that one was the most thrilling.
In the last week of January, Vänskä brought the Lahti Symphony to Avery Fisher Hall. Sibelius’s Second was again the main attraction, and again it rocked the house. Vänskä says that he aims for “passion and precision,” and he is the rare conductor who achieves the latter without sacrificing the former. He is a stickler for detail, and can exasperate players. But his exactitude serves an expressive end: minute shadings of dynamics and tempo create a cinematic depth of field, before which grand gestures unfold. Passion is always on the surface: Vänskä loves extremes of emotion, such as Sibelius’s spasms of sorrow and joy, and he holds nothing back.
Not content with his status as a genius Sibelius interpreter, Vänskä is now invading the mainstream repertory. He has undertaken a Beethoven cycle in Minnesota and is also recording the symphonies for BIS. The first installment, which will be in stores this month, pairs the Fourth and Fifth. There are no revolutionary interpretive departures, but the orchestra plays with startling, ear-cleansing vigor throughout, and the sound is as vivid as technology allows. Whether or not Vänskä’s Beethoven replaces Karajan’s in every home, Minnesotans will certainly embrace it, and they are the audience that counts. The future of music is local, not global. Every ensemble must justify itself to its community, because the global economy has no use for a symphony orchestra playing Beethoven or Aho or anything else. In this sense, Vänskä, an imperious but unpretentious conductor who delivers transcendent performances on an almost routine basis and rides a Yamaha 650 motorcycle in his spare time, is at the zenith of his profession.
The Lahti concert was the coda to a heavily Nordic month in New York. The bighearted Estonian-American conductor Neeme Järvi, who finishes his tenure at Detroit Symphony this spring and starts full time at the New Jersey Symphony next fall, presided over a “Northern Lights” festival at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Meanwhile, Järvi’s son Paavo led the Cincinnati Symphony in an all-Nordic program at Carnegie; the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes gave the première of a resonant dreamscape by the Danish composer Bent Sørensen; and the Finnish soprano Karita Mattila sang at the Met in “Katya Kabanova.” There are new CDs by such living Finns as Aho, Aulis Sallinen, and Einojuhani Rautavaara. If I could use these names in Scrabble, I’d rule the board.
You don’t need a degree in geopolitical musicology to understand why the Nordic countries have acquired such disproportionate dominance. They have paid for it fair and square. Finland, most notably, views music as a national pastime, not as an élite pursuit, and it has designed a music-education system that may be the best in the world. The country’s avidity for classical music, and not just of the imported variety, is rooted in the singular phenomenon of Sibelius, who assisted in the forging of the Finnish nation, and whose personal style radically renewed musical language while maintaining a powerful hold on the average listener’s imagination. The fact that Sibelius’s face appeared on the hundred-markan bill encapsulates this synergy of the economic and the artistic.
Finnish composers long ago stopped imitating Sibelius, but they are still indirectly influenced by his sense of sonority and space. Vänskä and the Lahti recently recorded Rautavaara’s Eighth Symphony—a not quite believable but immensely seductive geography of Romantic sound, in which long, songful, freely flowing phrases reach out for worlds that are long gone and perhaps never were. Sallinen, too, is up to Symphony No. 8, which the Cincinnati Symphony played at Carnegie. If Rautavaara is a dreamer, Sallinen is an ironist, an elegist, a dealer in lyric fragments. His Eighth is a shadowy, thinned-out landscape populated by a few sadly dancing figures.
At the New Jersey festival, the spotlight fell on the offbeat Nordic repertory that the elder Järvi has long made his specialty: works of Niels Gade, Rudolf Tobias, Johan Svendsen, and the near-great Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar. I can’t endorse Järvi’s claim that the Stenhammar First Piano Concerto is the “most beautiful piano concerto ever written”; I don’t even think it’s as good as the Stenhammar Second. But Järvi and the young Swedish virtuoso Per Tengstrand seized the piece as if it were great, and their conviction carried the day. Two other superb young soloists lit up the New Jersey programs. The seventeen-year-old prodigy Yuja Wang made lush, booming sounds in the Grieg Piano Concerto, and she also displayed an intelligent command of phrase and form. Pekka Kuusisto joyfully rejuvenated the Sibelius Violin Concerto, situating it somewhere between Bachian cogitation and rustic fiddling. Kuusisto had the added charm of being funny. When Joseph Horowitz, one of the organizers of “Northern Lights,” commented in a pre-concert event that the Kalevala epic is to the Finns as the Nibelungenlied is to the Germans and the Edda to the Icelanders, Kuusisto chimed in, “And as ABBA lyrics are to the Swedes.”
Finally, the New Jersey series introduced the young Estonian conductor Anu Tali, who guided Wang through the Grieg Concerto and then took on Sibelius’s monumental Fifth Symphony. Tali is one of a number of women who are elbowing their way into the clammily masculine world of conducting. The sound of the orchestra remains uneven: the strings are consistently full and rich, the brass sometimes coarse. But, despite the horn and trombone mishaps, Tali had the orchestra playing with palpable force and warmth. It was a welcome contrast to the chilly brilliance that is often heard from visiting ensembles in New York. In a recessionary orchestral climate, passion outweighs precision.