A Moveable Finnish Feast

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The New York Sun

The Mostly Mozart Festival is celebrating Finland: Two conductors, three soloists, and one composer took up residency on the Upper West Side in a moveable feast of musical events showcasing the nation currently most dedicated per capita to the cause of our beloved art form. On Saturday evening, Osmo Vänskä, who moved to Minneapolis in order to feel that he had stayed home on the Baltic, led the Festival Orchestra in an interesting program at Avery Fisher Hall. The evening featured a familiar work played in a rather unfamiliar manner.

The problem with Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto is that it was not written for a modern clarinet, the instrument not having quite the range of notes necessary for the concerto’s performance. For 200 years, soloists have dealt with this disparity using various tricks including transpositions, arrangements, and simple excisions. But to hear the piece in its original form requires some foresight.

Mozart composed the concerto for the basset horn, an instrument tuned in G with additional notes at the bottom a major third below the now-standard clarinet. He quickly revised the piece in his own lifetime just as the basset horn was in the throes of extinction, Mendelssohn being the last composer to utilize it in his writings. In a period instrument setting, the basset horn may be used effectively, but for a modern orchestra an alternative is needed.

Enter the basset clarinet, a modern instrument with the proper range and a hooked mouthpiece. This unusual woodwind, which sounds more like a 19th-century soprano saxophone than an 18th-century basset horn, is slowly becoming the preferred alternative for this lovely concerto. All the notes are there for the taking. On Saturday, the Finnish clarinetist Kari Kriikku took them dexterously but often kept them for himself.

What was disconcerting and disappointing about Mr. Kriikku’s enunciation was that he re-created the musical equivalent of mumbling. Phrases would begin strongly but then deteriorate into virtually inaudible sounds aimed physically downward. The combination of this diminutive man and the extra-long instrument placed the sound bell close to the stage floor and, except for a few incidents where the clarinetist raised his bell for effect, much of his passagework was simply lost.

To attempt to compensate for this tiny sound, Mr. Vänskä was beside himself dampening the volume of his accompanying ensemble, but no matter how softly they intoned, the clarinet was often overshadowed. At one point in that gorgeous Adagio, containing arguably the greatest melody of all in the Mozart oeuvre, Maestro allowed his strings to let loose with a lush and loud reprise, which many contemporary conductors would deem grossly un-Mozartean. This was my favorite moment.

Mr. Kriikku never took the reins and communicated the depth and breadth of this concerto. Beyond his self-effacing volume and note direction, he seemed uninterested in varying his moods to fit the music. There was little sense of lyricism or singing line in the slow movement, no twinkle of jocularity in the final Rondo. He offered his own cadenza, jettisoning Mozart’s delightful meanderings for but a few spare notes of exposition. Although it was fascinating to hear what exotic basset clarinet sounds were audible, overall this was a weak, unemotional effort. Mr. Kriikku had to fuss quite a bit with his instrument, making adjustments to his valves and mouthpiece after the opening Allegro. This undoubtedly necessary delay created the atmosphere in the audience where talking to one’s neighbor became instantly acceptable. The man seated directly behind me quipped to his companion, “He’s no Benny Goodman.” I heartily concur.

Beethoven’s Second Symphony was on the program as well, and, of course, no week of Finnish invasion would be complete without at least one work of Jean Sibelius. Maestro Vänskä offered a rarity, the 1905 suite from Sibelius’s incidental music to a production of Maurice Maeterlinck’s “Pelleas och Melisande.” This is episodic music with a capital E, some sections lasting only a minute or so, but others developed into full-blown Romantic tone poems of great beauty and signature Sibelian atmosphere. Last week, we had Louis Langrée’s French take on the same drama composed by Gabriel Fauré, fulfilling some arcane rule in the labyrinthine world of Mostly Mozart thematic connection. Too bad there is no Austrian guest conductor this season who could have brought a much greater work, the “Pelleas und Melisande” of Arnold Schoenberg.

On one end of the Piazza di San Marco there are 14 statues of emperors of the ancient world. The empty 15th, and central, place of honor was reserved in the early 19th century for Napoleon but, much to the delight of the Venetians, he was defeated and disgraced before his monument could ever be erected. Beethoven was not as fortunate as the people of Venice and so had to endure a maturity of regret for having dedicated his Third Symphony to the little corporal. On Thursday evening at the Mostly Mozart Festival, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra presented the immortal “Eroica” at the Rose Theater.

The CBSO is Simon Rattle’s old band and has a Finn, Sakari Oramo, as its current music director. On the podium this evening was the Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki, a relative newcomer. To say that she directed this performance may be a bit misleading. Her gestures were stiff and exaggerated, similar to a student debut, and concentrated almost exclusively on maintaining a steady beat. In any case, few of the players seemed to be paying much attention to her.

So what we got was a run-through, the way they play it back home. The Allegro con brio was filled with high-energy bowings at a brisk pace. Even with taking all of the repeats, this movement sailed along with notable propulsion. The ensemble has a distinctive blending of string and wind sound that gives the impression of burnished wood.

But without a master’s hand to guide them, the famous Funeral March movement was reduced to a paean to beauty, not unenjoyable per se, but hardly exhibiting the intense seriousness called for by the composer. If you hear this movement and do not think of Tolstoy’s magnificent descriptions of individual deaths, then someone has missed the mark.

The Scherzo bounced along nicely, but Ms. Mälkki’s decision to begin the Finale without pause backfired, as the ensemble was not in sync for the first few notes. Little ragged edges began to wear thin — the horns were bright but not always accurate — and the last 100 measures or so were more chaotic than disciplined. Not a bad performance, but hardly one for the ages.

Ms. Mälkki seemed more in her element in the New York premiere of “Notes on Light” by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. The work is a half-hour depiction of various scenes influenced by Finland’s light, engineered in a naturalistic, almost photographic manner. For a current piece it relies heavily on — shudder — tonality. Cellist Anssi Karttunen — from,you guessed it — performed yeoman service as soloist although his part was simply an interminable series of effects, a compendium of contemporary clichés.

Ms. Saariaho was on hand to receive the applause of the audience and to sign her CDs in the lobby during intermission. At this otherwise extremely well-attended Mostly Mozart Festival, it appeared that the inclusion of such a long contemporary piece on the program accounted for the large number of empty seats.

The New York Sun

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