Welcome Guests

Michael McDonagh on April 3, 2007
Having people over for the first time can be a trial. You don't know whether to say a convivial "pleased to meet you," or sit on your hands. Last week, the San Francisco Symphony's first-time guest, 54-year-old Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, did not get the full red carpet treatment from his hosting band, but he did seem to get their undivided, professional attention. Guests are sometimes encouraged to bring something of their own, and the dish Vanska brought was the concert opener, the 10-minute Louhi (2003), by his fellow Finn, the 58-year-old Kalevi Aho. The composer, who studied at the Sibelius Academy and in Berlin with the wonderful, yet hardly known Boris Blacher, has written pieces in every genre, including opera. Louhi was inspired by Finland's national epic, the Kalevala, and takes its title from the name of the queen of Pohjola, the underworld, who assumes many malevolent forms. Louhi's poltergeist anima was a fitting metaphor for Aho's compositional approach, which moved easily between stylistic suggestions — jazz in the cup-muted trumpets in the first part, and a striking episode for strings evoking ancient modes — but never seemed baldly let's-try-this-on-for-size eclectic. Shape-shifting was also Aho's approach to the orchestra. Loud and sometimes painfully granitic textures alternated with ones in which the floor seemed to disappear. Yet everything seemed musically motivated and expressively necessary, avoiding the twin pitfalls that afflict lots of new music — standard issue dissonant modernity or too-easy accessibility. Vänskä's precise, batonless gestures evoked chamber-music unanimity and alertness, with on-the-money contributions from the three percussionists, in particular the one on ratchet and wood block.

Mozart in the Middle

Vänskä brought a famous guest along, pianist Emmanuel Ax, who offered Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat, K. 482. Ax was both in his own world — he mimicked playing before he actually came in during the first movement — and acutely aware of what the orchestra was contributing to the picture, especially in the sensuous and touching Andante. (Mozart's slow movements are routinely described as operatic.) Here he came off like an actor lost in reverie being watched and commented on by other characters, in this case mostly the wind players. Ax's technique was effortless — real pianissimos, perfectly poised trills, a completely idiomatic first-movement cadenza, and soft-as-silk legato. Jan Sibelius' music has similar levels of challenge and nuance, though his approach to the orchestra is light years away from Mozart's. His orchestral style is not dissimilar to Aho's in some ways. Both are big on opposing weights and densities, and both composers were fortunate to have Vänskä on board as their advocate. Sibelius' Symphony No. 1 in E Minor Op. 39 was like a house on fire. The conductor knows this music from the inside out, as he's in the middle of a Sibelius recording project, and he takes the composer's tempo indications to heart. The first-movement Andante went by in a fevered flash. (Sagittarians like Sibelius aren't inclined to dawdle.) The remaining three movements, full of contrasts and many felicities, didn't lag either. Vänskä reading — he used a baton this time, as in the Mozart — had both drive and point. Such was his control and the orchestra's willing response that the entire thing threatened to collapse under its own perfervid weight, but somehow never did. Sibelius has not been particularly well-served by the San Francisco Symphony lately. Michael Tilson Thomas' account of the Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43, was all herky-jerky rhythms, as if the composer kept having ideas and dropping them. But Vänskä's reading made perfect sense. It also proved why this long-out-of-fashion composer still means so much to so many. The audience rose to its feet. Clearly this guest was welcomed, and will, I hope, be back.