Those Shining Finns

Lisa Hirsch on June 24, 2008
The last quarter-century has seen musical talent bursting out of Finland, a country of only 5.3 million that, owing to ample public funding of music education, has produced a steady stream of great conductors, performers, and composers. Among the prominent composers are Aulis Sallinen, Kaija Saariaho, Esa-Pekka Salonen (who also conducts), and Magnus Lindberg. This week, conductor Sakari Oramo — another Finn — brought to the San Francisco Symphony a program that included Lindberg's 2007 tone poem Seht die Sonne (Behold the sun). Co-commissioned by the Symphony and the Berlin Philharmonic, the work has already been performed in Berlin, New York, and Toronto. The summer solstice, especially given last week's blazing temperatures, might be the most auspicious time for the local premiere of a piece called Seht die Sonne. The title is an allusion to the radiant chorus that closes Schoenberg's immense Gurrelieder, but Seht die Sonne lies a great emotional distance from that chorus, being altogether grimmer and less conclusive. Scored for a big orchestra replete with winds, brass, many percussion instruments, and a pair of harps, it opens with a broad, majestic theme of massive solemnity, played by the horns over sustained notes in the strings. Throughout Seht die Sonne, sections of overwhelming orchestral density and volume alternate with lightly scored, rapidly moving sections dominated by the strings or woodwinds. Every now and again, a remarkable texture or solo emerges from the clamor, such as the rapid, repeated harp glissandos about a third of the way through, so sharply harmonized and percussive as to be worlds away from the stereotype of swooping, angelic harps. This is followed by a pounding timpani solo, then by a clacking multiplayer percussion riff over chromatically rising harmonies in the rest of the orchestra, somehow combining the bitter and the sweet at once. After this comes perhaps the greatest stroke in Seht die Sonne. The entire orchestra falls away, leaving only a solo cello playing a frantic cadenza that explores, and exploits, the full range of the instrument, including scurrying, haunted phrases in harmonics. The single cello — played magnificently by associate principal cellist Peter Wyrick — is slowly joined by the basses and the remainder of the cellos, in a long development incorporating echoes of the opening brass theme. The violins, violas, and woodwinds enter at staggered intervals, and eventually the percussion and brass. Seht die Sonne builds to a huge, syncopated climax, then calms, dying away quietly with yet another allusion to the opening, this time in the timpani. Special kudos are owed to timpanist David Herbert for brilliant work here and in the Beethoven that concluded the program, and to principal percussionist Jack Van Geem and his associates.

Major Work, Challenged by Balance Problems

Seht die Sonne's variety and grandeur make for a piece too big to fully absorb in one hearing, and I wish I'd been able to attend more than one concert in this series. It's a major, and successful, work by an increasingly prominent composer. The performance, committed and convincing, was marred by significant balance problems, with the brass and winds dominating and obscuring the strings whenever the full orchestra played. Perhaps that's unavoidable, given the scoring, or perhaps it's what Lindberg intended. More likely, though, the problem can be attributed to Oramo's comparative lack of experience conducting in Davies Symphony Hall, where the strings vanish all too often under the sonic onslaught of heavily scored works written in the last century or so, especially given the ease with which he achieved perfect orchestral balance in this program's Beethoven. Following the Lindberg came a welcome change of mood, in the form of a set of Debussy songs, Chansons de Jeunesse (Songs of youth). Scored for small orchestra by Sakari Oramo himself and performed by soprano Anu Komsi, the songs are light, charming, and by turns sunlit or moonlit. Oramo made good scoring decisions, and some, such as the harp and glockenspiel combination in the magical "Musique," are inspired. Komsi's bright, clear soprano suited the songs well, as did her sovereign vocal control and command of dynamics. She must be a delightful Zerbinetta and radiant Gilda, given her stage presence and fluid high register. But her tone, however lovely, lacked much variety, and palled a bit some 20 minutes into the set. Worse, her poor French, with its overly rounded vowels, rendered the texts unintelligible, the very antithesis of how French songs should be sung. The closing performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony got off to a promising start, with a stately reading of the slow introduction and a bumptious account of the Vivace that follows. But Oramo made the bizarre decision to attack the second movement immediately after the first, with no pause, and the fourth movement immediately after the third. He played each movement for maximum drive, rather school-of-Toscanini, and the overall effect was exhausting rather than exhilarating. There were scattered moments of great beauty, including the contrapuntal entries of the strings in the second movement, the trills in the Scherzo, and a gorgeous short clarinet solo in the second movement by Carey Bell, but the performance desperately needed more repose and more wit. Most of the audience evidently reveled in the excitement, because Oramo got a standing ovation — but I breathed a sigh of relief when the last movement finally ended.