A night of Finnish masterpieces

This concert had the distinction of being held almost exactly 100 years from the date Finland gained independence from Russia. PHOTO: SINGAPORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA/ FACEBOOK



Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Okko Kamu (conductor), Elina Vahala (violin)

Esplanade Concert Hall/Thursday

This concert had the distinction of being held almost exactly 100 years from the date Finland gained independence from Russia.

An unabashed celebration of all musical things Finnish, it featured Okko Kamu, who was principal guest conductor of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) from 1995 until just a few months ago, an all-Finnish programme and Finnish violinist Elina Vahala.

Jean Sibelius' Finlandia is easily the music most closely associated with Finland, in effect the country's second national anthem.

Many would recognise the second section of Finlandia as the melody to the serene hymn, Be Still My Soul.

The opening section of Sibelius' work, however, is anything but serene. It is powerful and Kamu conducted it as it should be - emphatic and reflecting struggle and victory.

Kamu has had many strong performances over the years in the Esplanade with the SSO. This performance was confident, forthright and worthy of the occasion.

While the violin concerto by Sibelius could have found its way onto the programme, it was good to hear something very different - the Singapore premiere of Jaakko Kuusisto's Violin Concerto, which he dedicated to his musical contemporary Vahala.

Both composer and soloist are in their early 40s and are representative of the depth and breadth of musical talent in Finland, which has been producing a stream of world-class conductors, composers, soloists, chamber musicians and orchestral players.

Unusually, the concerto begins with an extended cadenza, which has the soloist exploring the extremes of her instrument, double-stops and dissonant intervals.

Vahala is a supremely musical performer, with outstanding technique, which never overshadowed the lyricism of her playing.

The alternating heavy orchestral passages and singing solo part continued to build, then suddenly melded into an atmospheric slow second movement.

This grew in intensity, until finally fading into an ethereal Finnish skyscape, with tandem clarinets sounding like a chilly Northern wind.

The wood block and timpani, prominent in the first movement, returned in the final movement, this time to accompany the soloist's never-ending runs on the violin, gradually building to an explosive climax.

Vahala's playing was top rate throughout the concerto, even if the unfamiliarity of the work might have made it less evident for listeners. Her tone, expressiveness and fluency were second to none.

Kuusisto's Violin Concerto may never achieve the widespread popularity of Sibelius' concerto, but it was intense, refreshing and a worthy complement to the rest of the programme.

It was apt that the final piece of the evening was Sibelius's Fifth Symphony, the most iconically Finnish of symphonies, with a final movement motif on the horns that evokes graceful swans soaring in the Finnish landscape.

In contrast to the confident opening in Finlandia and their calm, composed playing in the Kuusisto concerto, it took some time for the SSO to settle down in the symphony.

Wind ensemble and intonation were slightly shaky until Liu Chang's confident bassoon solo restored composure.

From then, Kamu's clear direction and his well-thought-out lines took over. His tender second movement was beautifully shaped, helped by excellent string playing, especially from the violins.

By the time the orchestra moved into the final movement, Kamu and the SSO were in full flow.

Han Chang Chou and his horn section were in majestic form as they depicted the swan calls above the serenity of the countryside, joined by trumpets and brass, until the dramatic finale, punctuated with pauses between each of the final six chords.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2017, with the headline A night of Finnish masterpieces. Subscribe