Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu makes electric debut with Baltimore Symphony

04.09.10
Colin Currie
Baltimore Sun

By Tim Smith

If you don't already have plans to hear the Baltimore Symphony Friday night at Meyerhoff of Saturday night at Strathmore, make them. Trust me. This is something you really shouldn't miss.

I know what some of you are thinking: "Why would I bother changing my life around for a concert with a conductor I've never heard of leading a program that contains such two overly familiar pieces as Sibelius' "Finlandia" and Beethoven's Seventh? Not to mention a new percussion concerto by a composer with a name no one can pronounce."

Well, just get those silly thoughts out of your head right now. You won't be thinking that way after you go. You'll only be wondering how fast the BSO can re-engage Hannu Lintu as a guest conductor (in his native Finland, he leads the Tampere Philharmonic). You might still have trouble pronouncing Einojuhani Rautavaara, the Finnish composer of the percussion concerto on the program -- titled  "Incantations" and co-commissioned by the BSO -- but you'll likely find yourself interested in hearing more of his music.

All right, enough of the hard sell. Let me just explain why I left Meyerhoff Thursday night on such a high.

I'll start, as the program did, with "Finlandia." Although this is the most famous piece by Finland's most famous composer, I'd bet it gets played a lot more often on radio than in concert halls (a whole bunch of similarly appealing gems get treated that way, but that's for another blog post). So part of the fun was just having the chance to soak up all that earthy power of the opening brass chords -- like mighty fjords rising into view -- and the noble, stirring hymn tune that emerges later. What made this performance such a memorable experience was the way Lintu had the music sounding so fresh, so bold and bracing. He drew from the BSO a startling current of energy and expressive involvement from the get-go, a communicative bond that remained sturdy all evening.

The 81-year-old Rautavaara is one of the most unabashedly lyrical composers around. His melodic and harmonic idioms are immediately accessible, even when he adds layers of complexity. "Incantations," a work in three action-packed movements, is weakened a little by the big, recurring musical idea stated at the outset with great emphasis by the orchestra; that theme is just this side of the border from movie-score banality. It's catchy, though, no question about that. Luckily, Rautavaara has other ideas churning around in the orchestral portion of the score, while giving the soloist a lot of cool stuff to do.

Percussionist Colin Currie jumped into the assignment with his usual, apparently effortless aplomb, darting back and forth between marimba and vibraphone, as well as a battery of drums, cymbals and bells. The sheer virtuosity of his playing was enough to hold the interest, but there was considerable musical value in the way the percussion battery was deployed throughout this taut concerto. Much of the writing is subtle, atmospheric, evocative, rather than assertive (of course, whenever you see a lineup up multiple-size cymbals, you know they're going to get hammered in succession every now and then -- and that's part of this score, too). The dialogue between soloist and orchestra is often engaging, but the former's contributions understandably dominate the argument. Lintu provided Currie with supple support and drew lively work from the ensemble.

The BSO has played its fair share of Beethoven Sevenths over the years. The performance with Lintu has to rank among the finest. The conductor's combination of relentless drive, yet remarkable dynamic nuance, reminded me of Carlos Kleiber, and I can't think of any higher praise. I've been known to enjoy more restrained, weightier versions of this symphony (remember Bernstein's final concert?), but I can't resist the chance to be swept up into the kind of frenzy so expertly generated and managed by Lintu.

Even in the finale, at max tempo, the conductor ensured subtle varieties of expression so that the sound was never monochromatic. Lintu was no less engaging in the other movements, balancing propulsion with warmth, and his efforts drew some of the most cohesive, colorful and electrifying playing I've heard from the BSO in my 10 years here. That's why I'd really hate for you to miss it.