On Sunday evening, I attended the Oregon Symphony concert that offered Sibelius' Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Haydn's Concerto for Cello No. 2 in D major, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 and F major. The Schnitz seemed to be about 85 percent full; so Portland audience really responded well to this program selection or Ralph Kirshbaum, the featured cellist for the Haydn, really pulled in some of the Chamber Music Northwest crowd. (Kirshbaum has been a regular artist at CMNW's concerts for many years.)
Yet despite the strong program (with the first OSO performance of the Sibelius 6th) and the wonderful guest soloist, I thought that the very guest conductor, Hannu Lintu, stole the show with his very animated and unusual conducting style. (Read Charles Noble's blog for an explanation of the poetic conducting style vs. the scientific conducting style.)
Lintu is a very tall, lanky fellow with (at least on the surface) a dry, typically Finnish speaking style (business-like). He spoke to the audience and told us how everyone thinks that Sibelius' 6th Symphony deals with nature. Yet Sibelius never took walks in the forest or hugged trees. He did occasionally pace around his house while wearing a dark suit. Instead, Lintu said that this symphony is a portrait of "Sibelius' inner landscape" which was full of conflict at a time when he wanted to continue writing Romantic music despite the brusque treatment he was receiving from Schoenberg-influenced composers.
The first movement of the symphony was filled with a buoyant feelings of hope and cheerfulness. I heard lots of great woodwind combinations that are so common in Sibelius' music and there were swells in the sound that are uniquely his style. But that all shifted in the second movement when we heard all sorts of interesting combinations of sounds yet it ended like an incomplete thought. The third movement brought back some of the exiting exchanges in volume. Sometimes the strings would begin an agitated passage that would then fall back to a more relaxed and expansive idea. I recall hearing some terrific articulation in the lower strings. I didn't grasp the final movement well at all except to note that it ended quietly.
Throughout the piece the orchestra played really well. I was watching Lintu alternate between a clear beat to some very expansive, atypical gestures, like sweeping from side to side. I sort of remembered that the last time he directed the symphony (in 2004), he did some of the same thing.
Ralph Kirshbaum gave the Haydn Second Cello Concerto a beautiful interpretation. His tone was lovely and he made the difficult stuff look easy. The gorgeous second movement was wonderfully supported by the orchestra, which played as quietly as I have ever heard. I can also say that the audience really paid attention during this time. I heard no coughing or other kinds of disturbances in the balcony during the entire movement. Everyone seemed to enjoy the rich, warm, and playful nature of the third movement and responded to the piece with great appreciation.
After intermission, the orchestra returned to play Beethoven's 8th Symphony, and this is when the reserved Finn became something more akin to a poet or a wild man. After starting everyone at the beginning of each movement he seemed to abandon any type of beat that you could discern and instead went for the emotive, impassioned, expansive style of stick work in which you do anything you can to get the sound you want. I saw Lintu shaking the baton for several bars at the violas. I saw him swish around from side to side. He showed all sorts of exaggerated gestures that would be hard to catalog unless you watched on a video replay several times. And what he did got great results. The starts and stops were impeccable. The humor in the second movement was whimsical. The cellos, clarinets, and horns in the third movement were outstanding. The con brio tempo, sharp attacks, and crisp entrances in the fourth movement was scintillating! Wow! It was a memorable concert.
PS: I recall seeing Klaus Tennstedt conduct the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood many years ago in Beethoven's 5th. Tennstedt rarely raised the baton to a high enough level for the orchestra to see. Instead, he would sort of lunge at the orchestra as if he was going to skewer them. Whatever he did got tremendous results from the players and the audience ate it up.