Live Review: Colin Currie, Hannu Lintu Take Finns To Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (2010. 04.09)

Conductor Hannu Lintu, borrowed by the BSO for the night from Finland’s Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra, earned rave roars from the audience for his execution of Beethoven’s Seventh. But don’t let that fool you… this man makes the case for modern music.

It’s no accident then that he shared the night with Scottish percussionist Colin Currie. I saw Colin Currie play a tour de force solo show back in December ’06 – thanks to the Shriver Hall Concerts.  His arsenal of percussive equipment took up the entire breadth of stage at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s auditorium, and he raced up and down the full spectrum without tiring. And two encores!

This time, Currie indulged us with Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Incantations. This was another BSO co-commission. The opening movement strikes with intense immediacy, as if we’re in a play that’s started at the middle… after the king’s already been dethroned and before a new one takes over. The strings lend a chorale-like backdrop to Currie’s handiwork on the xylophone. At the work’s height — the Expressivo — Currie’s vibes created a crisp, almost geometric force laid over the messy, teeming world.

Racing back and forth from vibes to xylophone and back again backed, as in the open, by violins made one question who was the “skin” — the fluid melodic being — in this music and who the “skeleton” — an impression, which stands the whole idea of percussion in a piece on its head. After all, what is percussion in most symphonic works but underpinning and punctuation? The main punctuations here came with Currie’s quick, almost comedic strikes of the chimes.

Rautavaara certainly underutilized Currie’s skills here, despite composing at Currie’s request. The overall impression of the work, while engaging, never coalesced into something truly stratospheric — which I maintain is the necessary condition of calling something an “incantation.” I mean, it is about a shaman after all.

Back in the day, Jean Sibelius awarded Rautavaara a music scholarship, calling him: “the most promising Finn” on the scene. Now, Mr. Rautavaara is an advanced 81 years old and very much beloved by his countrymen. So it was perfectly just to compare the two Finns by an opener of Jean Sibelius’ famous Finlandia.

Of this account, conductor Lintu gave us a debonair flight. Let him make my triumvirate of rising star conductors alongside Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Vasily Petrenko. Young and brilliant, make no mistake. Lintu’s conducting is clear and ample, plenty of edge and speed that makes for a bracing presence on the podium and aural expanse alike. The menacing dark of the open wrought rich by the brass swept soft into a low thrum. A focused ray of plein air sunshine rang in from the strings. Wonderful! In later richness, almost electric illumination cut through from the cymbals.

And what about Beethoven? I admit bias due to a life-changing night with the Seventh under the spell of Kurt Mazur and the Cleveland Symphony. However, to Lintu’s credit I’d say I hardly recognized the piece — he made it utterly his own — the kind of Beethoven that even a metalhead could love. Oh but the strings were light, growing like green tendrils unfurl in spring, and moments were hushed to perfection. Comedies of notes struck to the fore and summer’s woodlands were called forth with a waggle of fingers.

At the end of the first movement, a cell phone chirped up with four beeps, soft, as if inside a handbag. Four more peeps. Louder and louder. The Maestro, his left hand out, did not turn to dignify the interruption. His one hand merely quaked in torment, each finger gnarled and stretched, then the whole hand shook. Not once, but twice. Then we plunged into the second movement. A great ride was had by all, especially to judge from the great throaty roar that poured back upon the stage like a tidal wave, drenching Lintu in applause and accolades. We hope this is enough to bring him back, and soon!

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