NSO’s Lemminkäinen

featuring Piotr Anderszewski

Something Old, Something New

A world premiere, an old favorite, and a tough sell on Sibelius

It’s not every concert you go to that you need to hear a work you haven’t heard live before. I’m working on lists, hearing all the Bruckner symphonies live, and other things. I have one left of Beethoven (8), one Brahms (3) and sort of one Mahler (10).

I’d originally purchased this concert to hear Anderszewski play Bartók’s third piano concerto, and I recalled the pairing (yet again) of Bartók and Sibelius, so imagine my surprise when I checked the ticketing system again to see not Bartók but Beethoven on the program. Hmmmm.

Well, Bartók would have been something new on the program, but there was something newer: a world premiere by 26-ish-year-old composer 李俊緯 (Chun-wei Lee), a commission from the NSO entitled Picking up the Sounds of Crops. It’s a piece for which one listen isn’t enough, from the standpoint that there’s a lot going on. It struck me immediately as possessing a Debussyesque texture, but then just as immediately as being far more dissonant and modern than the Frenchman would be. The three movements each have their own programmatic titles, but are also labeled Choral, Fantasia, and Passacaglia (the last of which interests me the most). There’s just a lot of detail in it, beautiful color and interesting texture, but for a three-movement work of about twenty minutes (maybe not quite?), a listener (or this one, at least) wants there to be some kind of internal structure, and it was most apparent in the passacaglia.

Any criticisms I have about the piece (and I really don’t, honestly) were swept away when I realized the composer, who came on stage to give a bow and accept a bouquet and applause, was like… as I said, 26 years old, still in school. What an accomplishment.

Next on the program was the piece that wasn’t Bartók. How can you not be in the mood for Beethoven? We’ve all heard all the piano concertos before, haven’t we? Local audiences love to nitpick and criticize (“Not a patch on Richter,” or “His interpretation isn’t like Karajan’s”….), but when a piece is played as warmly and delicately as Anderszewski and the NSO’s Beethoven tonight, it’s really a gem. It wasn’t going to singe off your eyebrows or shake you to your core (how could it?), but the entire piece was attended by a magical effortlessness, a sort of spontaneous perfection that nullifies any other “I’ve heard this piece before” comments. It was just beautiful. Maestro Lu conducted the whole piece without a baton, which somehow stuck with me as a liberating carefree gesture. The orchestra was responsive, colorful, whimsical, but grasped wonderfully that ubiquitous ‘spirituality’ in Beethoven’s music.

Anderszewski gave us a Janáček encore, I don’t know which. I’m told the reason for the program change was due, sort of, to illness, worried about having the Bartók prepared well enough to perform. That’s a pragmatic, humble decision to make, and if the performance of the Beethoven hadn’t been as splendid as it was, one might feel a bit like we got an easy choice, a sort of… leftovers, second-string replacement, but it was exquisite.

And then, finally, after what was somehow a longer-than-expected first half, we got to the main event, Sibelius’ grand literary epic Lemminkäinen. It’s a piece I hadn’t really listened to until recently, and honestly, my thoughts were more about the piece itself than the NSO’s performance of it, which was also excellent.

Among those thoughts was how Sibelius can write a grand, handsome work like this, clocking in at like, 50 minutes, with fluttery woodwinds and lush strings, roaring brass, a four-movement epic, that still isn’t Mahler’s ‘a symphony must be like the world and embrace everything’ idea. They’re fundamentally different, and Sibelius achieves something different with his work, entirely aside from the literary background.

It ended up being an odd program, though, with the gear changes between pieces, but the NSO went from a beautifully winged Beethoven to that earthy, icy, melancholy, expansive sound of Sibelius, and for whatever reason…. local concertgoers just don’t love Sibelius, or maybe Bartók, or maybe the combination of both?

Osmo Vänskä himself came to conduct Bartok and Sibelius (the former’s viola concerto, the latter’s fifth symphony) and ticket sales that night were better than meager probably only because of Vänskä’s name. I heard it was a hard sell. So the concert again tonight was originally to feature the Hungarian and the Finn, but audiences seem just not to love it. Well, the audience who’s there mostly does, but here, with a flourishing musical scene, would be as cold to Sibelius and his music as a Finnish winter.

Mahler is more than having his heyday here, but Bruckner is still also a hard sell, and I get that… his pieces are just big, and not only in terms of duration. They’re expansive and broad and can be hard to wrap your brain around. The NSO doesn’t even sell the top floor of the concert hall when Bruckner’s on the program, even when they programmed the seventh with the Elgar cello concerto, an audience favorite. That’s sad, but not as shocking as the icy response to Finland’s most famous composer.

Hopefully they’ll thaw out. The NSO is doing him superb justice. Now we just need his third, fourth and seventh symphonies on programs next year. Wonderful stuff.

Speaking of Mahler, we’ll be seeing more of him in a concert next week, in a program I’m looking very forward to, so do stay tuned, and thank you so much for reading.

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