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Live Review: The Finns Take Philadelphia – Vänskä Conducts Sibelius and Aho’s Minea (2010.03.13)

Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center (home to the Philadelphia Orchestra) puts the Kennedy Center to shame. This 2001 building gives off an intergalactic glass air from the outside. But once you cross the orchestra doors into Verizon Hall, sweeping elliptical balconies in warm wood welcome you and provide an intimate surprise once the orchestra strikes up.

Such a hall was very kind to the East Coast premiere of Kalevi Aho’s Minea. This concertante for orchestra gets its feminine nickname from the commissioning orchestra (Minnesota) where Vänskä conducts. Ever the champion of his fellow Finn, Vänskä gave Aho’s overture a powerful push. He was jumping, bending deep in the knees, twisting from the hips before delivering an openhanded punch or swipe to call up a section to glory.

The muscle in this piece comes from its pure percussive acceleration. The opening, with glockenspiel and ringing trumpet work, initially made me fear for an all-too 2001: A Space Odyssey, Straussian riff. But the backbone of the work was percussion: classical to Turkish to bongos and chains. The magic lent from the hall nourished the sound of each instrument, giving it an individual track straight to the ear. Never have I heard the piano ring out so clear.

Oboe, contrabassoon, flute and first chair violin solo provided great stations along the way of a full throttle momentum rush. Drumbeats darted at one from all directions, tight as a Ghanaian parade. When the strings lay atop, the vibe flowed into a Lawrence of Arabia quality soon abandoned for horns that called out in crisp urgency towards a blazing sharp climax.

Like a marshmallow in the middle of a good campfire s’more, Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 delighted the audience in the center of the program. Nothing profound here, but the work was lightly and lovingly dazzled by the young Frenchman, Jean-Frederic Neuburger. There’s a whiff of David Helfgott about him (compare with Shine). Lacksadaisy could be his middle name: you see it in his stride across the stage, his humble amusement at the demand of encore. This is a great hall to hear a concerto in. The treasure here was Neuburger’s extended solo-to-solo discourse with cellist Efe Baltacigil. Philly Orchestra’s associate principal has done it again! He first came to the fore with Emanuel Ax in a Beethoven sonata back in 2005. Baltacigil’s voicing was like a lover crying out in the night, giving a rich sensitivity that this performance would have paled without. I’m seeking him out for a solo occasion (looks like it’ll be Lincoln Center, next January).

The finale, Jean SibeliusSymphony No. 2, really let some sections glow. I’m especially jealous of how good Philly’s bassists sound — the second movement Andante, ma rubato started with a drum roll straight into their part. Each note articulated with dark D-minor candor beyond the usual dull hum. They passed the motif off to the cellos, and the cellos then passed it back to them. The flexibility of volume was on display here, and for the whole orchestra. From full blaze down to a hush, you could hear the horsehair whispers under the notes. And then they flew into the triumphal burst of the finally quenched rising three-note motif finding the fourth note. Assistant principal cellist, Yumi Kendall, was so happy she broke into a smile. Each time the string theme returned, she couldn’t contain her joy, like a Derby horse who knows its won the race in the last leg. Catching that lift on the back of the artist’s zeal is exactly what makes the symphony hall matter.

[Author’s note: As did the BSO, these fantastic players took pay cuts to help keep the orchestra afloat. Do trek up to Philly and grab a seat, support the music you love -- LIVE!]

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