John Storgårds and Nikolaj Znaider triumph in an all-Sibelius program at Tanglewood

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John Storgaards-leading the BSO in an-all Sibelius-program. Photo Hilary-Scott.
John Storgaards-leading the BSO in an-all Sibelius-program. Photo Hilary-Scott.

Tanglewood, Koussevitzky Music Shed
Saturday, July 16, 8:30 p.m. Shed
John Storgårds, conductor
Nikolaj Znaider, violin

All-Sibelius Program
Valse triste
Violin Concerto
Symphony No. 5

We critics, as we go about our dismal business, seldom get to enjoy concerts and festivals in the same way as our readers. A memorable concert is its own reward, of course, and that is why the critics and the public are there in the first place—in most cases, let’s say. Saturday evening, however, as I anticipated Nikolaj Znaider, whose work I know, and John Storgårds, who was entirely new to me, I was able to enjoy a classic Tanglewood picnic with some delightful new friends. We arrived early, set ourselves down by Seiji Ozawa Hall, as the music of Ravel very quietly filtered out of the hall. (The rear doors were closed because of a fund-raising event nearby on the grounds.) We spoke very quietly, because a few people were actually trying to listen to the music from out there. We had no such seriousness of purpose. Neither did the courtesies of the moment impinge on our fun. There is a lot to be said for the traditional Tanglewood picnic.

Of course I entered the Shed in a good mood. That is something critics have to watch out for. I always try to be aware of my state of mind at the beginning of a concert or operatic performance and try to even it out. Almost any occupation has something to teach one about oneself and the ways of the world, and music criticism is no different. Music can bring us closer to raw emotion than any other of the arts. If a critic suppresses it, he will produce a dry scribble which is most likely to be no more objective than if he gave his feelings free rein. A good critic will be self-aware, before he gives himself over to the music. And what music could be as tempting to such self-surrender than Jean Sibelius’ fervent patriotic tone poem, Finlandia, and his depressive, fin de siècle Valse Triste? My more jaded readers may be surprised to read this, but, Storgårds stirred up a good deal of passion in a BSO that seemed rather fully populated with subs, at least in the outer reaches of the strings, and I found myself more than willing to immerse myself in  Sibelius’ heady brew of mood swings and dark emotions. But more of that later.

Mark Volpe and his crew deserve a medal for putting together a fine group of replacements for James Levine’s dates in only a few months. Charles Dutoit and Hans Graf are well known to Boston audiences, less so Emmanuel Krivine, and John Storgårds is a total newcomer. His background is especially interesting, given his predilection for mixing up the basic repertory with little known symphonic works from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, Walton, Korngold and Nino Rota, as well as contemporary compositions, like international premiere performances of Rautavaara’s new cello concerto with Truls Mørk and the same composer’s new percussion concerto with Colin Currie, Saariaho’s new clarinet concerto with Kari Kriikku, Gruber’s “Busking” with Håkan Hardenberger and a new Concerto for Orchestra by Rolf Wallin. Before studying to become a conductor John Storgårds was concert master of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra during Esa-Pekka Salonen’s tenure, and he continues to perform as a virtuoso violin soloist, a fact that has special relevance to his work in the Sibelius Violin Concerto at Tanglewood. He is currently Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and Artistic Director of the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, and makes frequent guest appearances with major orchestras of Scandinavia, the UK, and Germany, as well as Australia, Japan, and so far in the US, the Cincinnati Orchestra, where he was immediately invited back. I shouldn’t be surprised if that happened in Boston as well. John Storgårds is a conductor of authority and a profound knowledge of the scores he conducted. In a way, it’s too bad that we didn’t get a chance to hear him in one of his trademark mixed programs, but in this one Storgård had a chance to show his personal sympathy for the music of his national composer and his own highly individual way of projecting it through an orchestra, every bit as rugged and uncompromising as the music itself.

Tanglewood often manages to put at least some work relating to the Bard Music Festival on its program. Whether intentional or not, it provides a welcome foretaste of music Festival-goers will hear in exhaustive detail. Leon Botstein will be conducting Finlandia and the Fifth Symphony in his opening program on August 12. Earlier in his career, Sibelius was was idolized, but his music was soon recognized as conservative and imbued with the nationalistic sentiments of earlier generations. As his compositional activity fell off in the late 1920s, he could offer little to resist the criticisms of his work and his politics as anti-progressive and passé. By the 1960s, when Mahler was being rediscovered, the controversy lapsed into indifference, but Sibelius survived to some degree in the UK, partly due to that way he fits with his British contemporaries and partly due to Colin Davis’ championship of his work, beginning in the late 1950s. For some fifty years now, Sir Colin has rehabilitated Sibelius for younger generations with performances which were highly refined in balance and color, and which emphasized the coherence and flow of the symphonies to ears that were impatient towards the moody wanderings Sibelius had been known for. I certainly owe my own affection for Sibelius to Sir Colin’s representation of him.

Storgårds came with something entirely different. His method of presenting a piece to an audience is entirely in the moment. Each work is what it is for its duration, and each section of each work has its own integrity and power. Storgårds dispensed with his baton for Finlandia and Valse Triste and conducted both of them with a more or less true agogic technique, that is, guiding the shape of the phrases and rhythm with gestures of the hand and arm, rather than stroking out the beat of each measure with the stick. In these he made his approach to Sibelius clear, and although he used a baton and a more conventional technique in the concerto and the symphony, they reflected the same view of the composer as an artist who, immersed in intense emotions of his own, departed from classical form to concentrate on expression. In both of the tone poems, Storgårds led the audience into Sibelius’ progression of mental states through his arresting opening gestures, fully weighted pauses, and melodic phrases moulded for emotive weight rather than moving the listener through the whole of a well-shaped composition. The strings played with great substance and warmth, as did the brass, who often entered with biting, even harsh attacks. In this case atmosphere and feeling justified themselves in these powerful readings, and Sibelius came across as a more daring composer than he is often given credit for. The orchestra followed Storgårds with energy and commitment, and, from their behavior during the enthusiastic applause, they clearly enjoyed playing for him.

Nikolaj Znaider brought a markedly different mentality to the mix. He tempered his consummate virtuosity with an aristocratic poise and restraint, using his command of tone color as an intellectual tool to probe the many different facets of Sibelius’ invention. In this, he and Storgårds had an important trait in common, and both approached the concerto as a work of great complexity, teeming with ideas, so rich that they are almost more than its classical structure can bear. (The Violin Concerto is as close as Sibelius comes to Mahler.) For the rest, I cannot imagine a more sympathetic accompaniment than what Storgårds provided. He seemed both to feel and to think his way into Znaider’s playing with a unique capability for identification, no doubt aided by his own secondary career as a violin soloist. (Znaider himself doubles as a conductor.) Their performance was a monumental reading of the work, which emphasized its originality and modernity, and this made a stark contrast to the approach of many violinists, who tend to assimilate it to romanticism. Znaider produced a consistently warm, burnished sound from the 1741 Guarneri he plays, which once belonged to Fritz Kreisler, but this only proved to be the basis for the extraordinary range of coloration he brought to Sibelius’ writing—an incredibly versatile language for his analysis of the work. A few years ago I stated some criticisms of his impressive account of the Elgar Violin Concerto, because I felt his restraint and intellectuality got in the way of Elgar’s elegiac sensitivities. Here, in contrast, the Sibelius Concert only gained from his rigor and insight.

Using a baton with the same eloquence and precision he exercised in the Violin Concerto, Storgårds brought an immense range of expression to his interpretation of the Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, presenting it, like the other works, as a highly original, modern work. In this program, as I’ve mentioned, he made each piece stand alone, as individual creations, each with its own coloristic, harmonic, and psychological palette. The buildup of dissonant chords in the last movement, just before the final section of it, was without a doubt one of the most thrilling moments I have experienced in the concert hall. I cannot remember any other conductor who went so far in bringing out the harsh wildness of this amazing passage. The Fifth, in its symphonic monumentality and singleness of purpose, did not show as many psychic nooks and crannies as the Violin Concerto, but Storgård once again produced an exploratory reading, which in turn brought out the exploratory character of Sibelius’ composition. In general these performances revealed Sibelius as a great musical adventurer, one of extraordinary bravery in creatively opening himself to terrifyingly dark states of mind, which could well lead the way to insanity. In Sibelius’ case it was chronic depression, alcoholism, and a final block to his creativity.

In John Storgårds, the BSO found a superb conductor for the Sibelius program James Levine left behind. I rather think he had more original insights into the music than Levine would have shown. In fact they may well have found something more than a superb guest conductor. Although he lacks the international “high profile” of Chailly or Nelsons, Storgård’s broad interests in music, the substance and interest of the programs he has initiated in Finland, as well as his technical skill as a conductor are enough to make him an especially appealing candidate for the empty Music Director’s position at the Boston Symphony. I hope the committee will give him very serious consideration.

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