23 August, 2008

Helsinki Philharmonic: Sallinen/Sibelius/Kamu

23 August, 2008
Helsinki Philharmonic/Okko Kamu
Shenzhen Concert Hall

The typhoon waned just in time, and it was a beautiful day to visit the spacious environs of the Shenzhen Concert Hall.

Invited by the Ministry of Culture but sponsored "privately", Helsinki's China tour can be found on the website. That did not prevent the presence of
some people (not as many as during SSO concerts) hawking tickets as well as asking to buy tickets (probably the same people). It seems you can get tickets that are a bit cheaper than at the box office (probably complimentary tickets), and I see some intervention by guards. As for the SSO at this venue, although it seems nearly sold out as seen from online booking, the hall was no more than 40% full.

I sat to the left and a little closer to the stage than last time. Acoustics was excellent. Opening the program was Sallinen's "At the Palace Gate". Surprising for this grim composer (which Finnish one is not?), it is an atmospheric piece with music of episodes of wildly contrasting moods, somber and rollicking at times. It was beautifully played. The concert was privately sponsored and had only a flimsy program note leaflet that did not elaborate on the piece. Getting on the net, I found this is the overture to his opera "The Palace". Too bad there is no recording of just this.

The Sibelius violin concerto was played by Wang Zhijiong (王之炅), who placed third in the Sibelius competition in 2000. She is a very good player, most importantly a surprisingly musical player, who payed at least as much attention to counterpoint and phrasing than showmanship. Not surprisingly, considering her teacher was the always musical Yu Lina. The only drawbacks were her smallish tone and the slowish tempo. A little more passion would have been welcome too. The orchestra accompanied quite discreetly, but Kamu's reading was full of pointing details. The opening string pianissimo was ravishing (acoustics of this hall helps immensely)
but it was the superb dynamic gradation that was truly captivating。 The rhythmic precision was astounding, subtle and springing, but those looking for a galloping sense would have been disappointed.

A feeling crept into my mind during this perfromance. Yes, it was like hearing Scheherazade. The soloists was smallish, sometimes pleading. The orchestra, though exacting in quietude, was gargantuan when unleashed. The two never did converge fully like in Rimsky's piece, but it was a different interpretation for sure.

The orchestra and Kamu displayed their full splendor in Sibelius' Fifth Symphony. The long first movement kept its focus all the way. Kamu brought out a myriad of details without ever losing sight of the full canvas (like HKPO/EdW are prone to do). The playing was not the most beautiful. but it was certainly the most concentrated. Every note of the all-important woodwinds was played with proper dynamics, giving the opening unusual power. In this hall you can also fully delineate the string sections and appreciate the impeccable pharsing and the rythmic exactitude and counterpoint which Kamu used uncannily in building. The full and accurate brass with its seemingly unlimited reserve surprised me many times and enabled Kamu to build truly impressive crescendo's that were smooth and powerful at the same time.

The second movement was a revelation. Permeating the slowly unfolding permutations was a shimmer that subtly conveyed joy and celebration, a perfect foil to the sustained building of the first movement.

Under Kamu's iron grip, the third movement brought out the full import of this piece, building to a finale of incomparable grandeur. For once, the forces did not seem too small for the emotion expressed.

The performance was one of total committment and dissecting intellect which Sibelius deserved. It was not played as a red-hot romantic piece, but something much more complex. The sound world of Mahler kept propping into my mind during the perfromance. Not surprising, given Kamu's immaculate performance of Mahler's 4th with the AYO previously.

Encore was an excellent performance of Finlandia, for once a grand piece rather than a bombastic one。

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