Monday July 18, 2011

LENOX -- From a land of the midnight sun, John Storgards came, making Sibelius’ music burn like the midday sun.

The Finnish conductor made his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut Saturday night at Tanglewood in lieu of the departed James Levine. The program of the Finnish composer’s works bore Levine’s fingerprints, but in one electric moment after another, Storgards made it his own.

The descent into Sibelius’ depths and ascent to his heights was abetted by the searing intensity of Danish violinist Nikolaj Znaider’s solo work in the Violin Concerto. Rarely have Sibelius’ loneliness and brooding sounded more deeply human than in this penetrating collaboration.

It doesn’t take a Finn to conduct Finnish music, but it surely helped to have the chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra on board. Little known in the United States, Storgards follows the path blazed by Esa-Pekka Salonen, Osmo Vanskaa and other major conductors who have come out of a country that supports a national system of music education.

The BSO program was especially tonic coming a night after a dispirited showing under veteran conductor Kurt Masur. The patriotic fervor of "Finlandia" and wistfulness of "Valse triste" led to the Violin Concerto’s torments and the Fifth Symphony’s march to triumph.

The BSO’s tonal splendor through all this was a wonder to behold, with Storgards inciting the brasses and horns to break forth in all their solemn and joyous glory.


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The concerto performance was a revelation.

It wasn’t just Znaider’s purity of tone and immersion in the music that made the difference here. Storgards opposed the orchestra to the soloist so that the orchestral cries of anguish set off, all the more, the violinist’s isolation from the world of beauty and meaning he exalts.

"Finlandia" and "Valse triste" are so popular that they don’t often make it onto a symphonic program, but the proclamations of the one and the poignancy of the other put them in good company with the weightier works that followed. Sonorously played, the Fifth Symphony followed an inevitable arc from mutterings at the beginning to blazing triumph at the end.

Schumann’s symphonies haven’t received much play in the Shed in recent years, so it was good that on Friday night Masur chose to bring back the "Spring" Symphony, Schumann’s first. The BSO had last played it at Tanglewood in 1992.

Good idea but, alas, in both the symphony and Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, with Lynn Harrell as the soloist, the BSO sounded lost and lifeless. Masur, 84, seemed frail and unable to exert much command, though he seemed to be enjoying himself.

The orchestra appeared to have trouble following his beat. Of phrasing, there was a minimum. The violins sounded edgy all night. The concert was all the more disappointing because Masur was once among the proudest of maestros and, as a former music director in Leipzig, he brings a link to the romantic tradition.

Whether by soloist’s or conductor’s choice, the tempos in the Dvorak concerto were unusually slow. They dragged, in fact.

The performance might have had a chance if some kind of illuminating detail -- some glow of heart or sun -- had shone through. As it was, the whole thing sounded like a chore.

Harrell produced a soulful adagio and was able to put life into some other passages. But, though normally sure-fingered and solid in interpretation, he, too, was off his form. In the retrospective slowdown for the conclusion, it seemed this ship would never make it into port.