Finnish conductor makes impressive lakefront debut in music of his homeland

Thu Jul 30, 2009 at 11:11 am

By Wynne Delacoma

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Conductor Pietari Inkinen. Photo: Tanja Ahola

     According to economists, Finland’s principal exports may be engineering machinery and products made from the trees in its fabled forests.

      Ask a music lover, though, and the list will probably will be quite different. There is Sibelius, of course. But for the past decade or two, Finland has earned renown for another kind of musical export. Thanks in part to inspired teaching at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy, Finland has become the principal exporter of a steady stream of astonishingly fine conductors.

    Among them are Esa-Pekka Salonen, who recently stepped down as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic after 17 seasons; Osmo Vanska, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Mikko Franck.

    On Wednesday night a huge audience at the Grant Park Music Festival heard from one of Finland’s youngest conducting stars, Pietari Inkinen. Born in 1980 and currently music director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Inkinen is clearly a conductor with something to say and the skills to make an orchestra help him say it.

     Glorious summer weather and Sibelius’ well-loved Symphony No. 1 were probably the major reasons for the large crowd at Wednesday night’s concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. But Inkinen and the Grant Park Orchestra offered much more than yet another encounter with a familiar piece. Sibelius’ music is shot through with melancholy, and the concert opened with two other introspective works: Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten and Manhattan Trilogy by contemporary Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara.

    These were daring choices, and not simply because their long, quiet stretches could easily be shattered by the police sirens and roaring traffic noise that come with the Pritzker Pavilion’s downtown territory. These works require orchestra and conductor to set and sustain a mood, to slowly and steadily draw us into the crushing grief of Part’s lamentation and the youthful dreaminess of Rautavaara’s Manhattan. Musicians and conductor must carefully calibrate their performance, so that sorrow doesn’t become bathos or daydreams turn into self-indulgent clichés.

     Part’s brief Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten showcased Inkinen’s ability to draw taut, expressive playing from Grant Park’s fine players. Written in 1977 shortly after the death of the distinguished English composer, it was suffused with Part’s typical sense of vast, quiet space.  A lone bell sent a single, repeated note into the night, soon joined by glassy, high-pitched rustling from the violins. The rustling gradually coalescing into obsessively repeated phrases-short, sharp slides like the breathing of a child wracked with pain. As the darker strings slowly added their voices, the music gathered weight, becoming a full-throated, resolute outcry against all the sorrows of the world.

     The same sensitive phrasing animated Rautavaara’s Manhattan Trilogy, written in 2004 as a look back at the composer’s happy, if brief, time as a student at New York’s Juilliard School in the 1950s. Rautavaara is essentially a tonal, lyrical composer, though hints of dissonance—never gratuitous—add spice and depth to his music. Throughout most of this three-movement work, the musicians perform as a tightly woven unit and under Inkinen’s crisp baton, the Grant Park Orchestra sounded supple, rich and impeccably unified.

     There were plenty of opportunities for soloists to shine, however. In the opening “Daydreams” movement, solo oboe, clarinet, violin and horn took turns wandering happily against the massed orchestra. They ambled like young people with all the time in the world to explore a fascinating big city and dream about the future.

   The “Nightmares” movement had its outbursts of fear, unexpected moments full of clanging dissonance. But this particular Manhattan night sounded more voluptuous and enfolding than sinister. In “Dawn,” bright swirls from the harp and the sunny timbre of brass rose above the powerful orchestra, which flowed as proud and seamless as unimpeded traffic on a busy city parkway.

    Inkinen doubtless has Sibelius’ majestic Symphony No. 1 in his bones, and it certainly is a staple of the orchestral repertoire. But Wednesday’s performance sounded spontaneous and fresh from start to finish. In the opening pages, the mood was watchful and wary, foreshadowing the composer’s characteristic shifts between sun and shadows.

   All of Sibelius’ dark-hued tonal color was on display, along with his heroic melodies and jagged rhythms that seemed carved from granite. But the orchestra sounded transparent and sweet-tempered in the symphony’s serene moments, and Inkinen never allowed heroic passages to turn ponderous or bombastic. The second movement was full of wistful, caressing song, tender yet never sentimental. This was a subtly drawn, compelling performance from a young conductor who seemed at ease with the veteran Grant Park Orchestra. With luck, this first visit to the Pritzker Pavilion won’t be Inkinen’s last.

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