Mark Gresham | 21 FEB 2020
Music of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was the sole focus of Thursday night’s concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by guest conductor Thomas Søndergård and featuring violinist Blake Pouliot as soloist. The program will be repeated tonight (Friday) at the Falany Performing Arts Center (Reinhardt University) in Waleska, Georgia, then again in Atlanta on Saturday night at Symphony Hall.
It’s the first of two “Northern Lights” programs to be conducted by Søndergård in as many weeks, with next week’s ASO concerts offering music from other Scandinavian countries: Norway, Sweden and the conductor’s homeland, Denmark.
SøSøndergård’s last appearance as guest conductor was in April of last yer, when he led a somewhat controversial performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with disturbingly fast tempos, in particular the treacherous pace imposed oin the “Alla marcia” of the final movement, for which tenor soloist Thomas Cooley truly deserved combat pay.
However, with Sibelius, Søndergård demonstrated he was in his own element – and one might also anticipate to be the case with next week’s clutch of Scandinavian composers. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Thursday nights Sibelius-fest began with Finlandia, the composer’s most popular and populist work, especially the eponymous original hymn-tune it contains. The nine-minute tone poem serves well as a curtain-raiser, though it can also easily become a barn-burner in the wrong hands. We got from Søndergård and the ASO a solid performance that risked going over the top at some points, but only skirted the edge of that, and a particularly attractive hymn-tune section (beginning at rehearsal letter “I,” for those following the printed score).
The highlight of the concert came next, Sibelius’ Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D-minor, Op. 104, with 25-year-old Canadian violinist Blake Pouliota soloist. It’s a difficult solo part, much of it totally virtuosic, though there are sufficient lyrical passages in the mix. Yet Sibelius gave the solo violin and all sections of the orchestra fairly equal voices, affirding the work a more “symphonic” caracter as a whole.
There are two cadenzas for the soloist in the first movement: the smaller one that appears immediately before rehearsal mark (2) in the score, then the larger, extended cadenza between marks (6) and (7) takes on a more strictural role as the movement’s development section. The third movement is especially formidable and is well-regarded by solists as one of the greatest violin concerto movements ever written.
Puliot dug in and gave the concerto a thrilling perfomance, well-matched by the ASO under the baton of Søndergård. Afterward, Pouliot returned to the stage to play an encore that was not by Sibelius, rather a Celtic folk tune known as “Last Days of Summer,” in his own arrangement. Itwas a welcomed contrast that gave Pouliot a little extra opportunity to show, in an exposed way, more of the lyrical side of his playing.
The second half of the program was Sibelius’ Symphony No. 6 in D minor (actually in modern Dorian mode) followed by Symphony No. 7 in C major — his final two symphonies. Søndergård led the music well, the ASO played well, there was much beauty and colorfulness in the performance. But it was like being served too much of the same thing at dinner. Søndergård made it clear that the two symphonies would be played back to pack without a break in between, as if together they were one long work. That choice proved a tactical error.
Due to that, the Seventh Symphony came across as if it were an excessively overextended fifth movement to the Sixth, with a kind of “more of the same” feeling to it which dampened receptiveness. As the music wagged on, it felt like the air was being slowly let out of the program’s tires: a classy ride that wasn’t going anywhere in particular. Making a musicological point of the close relationship between the two symphonies is not sufficient cause to Scotch tape them together in performance. It has to be musically convincing in a visceral way. A break between them could have helped. A compatible but contrasting substitute for either one of the two would have fared better, even if not by Sibelius. ■