Down the Rabbit Hole

01.20.12
Caroline Goulding
TheaterJones

By Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

At the Dallas Symphony, even brilliant violin prodigy Caroline Goulding couldn't tame a baffling performance under the baton of Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen.

Dallas — The Thursday performance by the Dallas Symphony was completely unexpected. Shocking, really. 

Much was anticipated in the outing of the young Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen. At his tender age, he holds important orchestral positions and has guest conducted major symphonies and opera companies all over the world to glowing reviews. He is even scheduled to conduct that ultimate test of a seasoned podium professional, Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, at Palermo’s Teatro Massimo—a task that is not assigned lightly. 

What we got was pretty unbelievable. You questioned your own ears and eyes. 

Inkinen seems to have invented his own conducting technique. It is an Alice in Wonderland-style where down beats go up, hands constantly mirror, and his lack of physical expression of the music makes his movements indistinguishable from one moment to the next. Nothing even vaguely resembling a standard beat pattern appeared all evening. His fluid nondescript movements, which were unchanging, didn’t even define an ictus to differentiate one from two. Watching a video of his performance, you would be hard pressed to tell what he was conducting at any one point. 

This is not to say that the only fine conductor is one who constantly demonstrates the classic beat patterns and independence of the hands. In fact, there are many fine conductors, such as Georg Solti and even our own superb Jaap van Zweden, who create stupendous performances while paying only lip service to such technical refinery. Van Zweden, in particular, elicits a precision and unity of vision in the orchestra that is almost superhuman while using his unique style. Solti was said to have a black belt in conducting because of his pugilistic gestures. 

With Inkinen, it was everyone for themselves in Vagueland. Even the first note of the Sibelius Symphony No. 5 was ragged. Dallas audiences expect better. 

Inkinen was at his worse accompanying the brilliant 19-year-old violinist Caroline Goulding in the Sibelius Violin Concerto. She obviously has the chops to play this concerto, and also has the beginnings of a fine musical sensibility to make some real music with this virtuoso showpiece. Someday, it will be a signature concerto for her. Here, she had absolutely no assistance whatsoever from Inkinen. Just the opposite. 

He hurried along where she needed space and held back where she needed to move forward. He was frequently as much as half a beat behind her at the resolutions. In the big moments, she was covered but where she needed support, she was left to dangle on her own. He was rarely in eye contact with her, which required that she, instead, watch him intently. In some critical moments, he tuned his back on her completely. 

In spite of this, Goulding played her heart out and gave an impassioned reading of the concerto. 

We got our first hints right at the beginning. Things started out poorly to open the ill-fated concert as Inkinen gave a monotonous reading of Manhattan Trilogy by the Finnish elder statesman of composers, Einojuhani Rautavaara. This has to be a better piece than what we heard. 

The program ended with a stultifying reading of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 in E Flat Major. Inkinen, in addition to a lack of baton technique, also lacks the slightest idea of where the music is going. He is like a swimmer treading water; he goes nowhere. This is especially egregious in Sibelius, who is fond of repeated patterns (ostinati) that build over time. Here, they just sounded repetitious. 

It is hard to write a review like this about a conductor that has been lauded internationally. You can’t help but think that there was just something that you missed and that it was a truly wonderful performance. But Inkinen looked more like an armchair air conductor moving, impressively in his own mind, to a recording in the privacy of his own home than an international sensation. 

A trip though a good conducting text, like the one by Max Rudolph, and a summer at Tanglewood would do him a world of good.