Two young Finnish musicians, conductor Pietari Inkinen and violinist Pekka Kuusisto, highlighted last weekend’s Oregon Symphony concert with spirited performances of works by Jean Sibelius, Igor Stravinsky, and Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. I attended the concert on Sunday, and the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall was fairly full, a pleasant surprise for two guest artists who are not well-known in the United States. Inkinen is the newly appointed music director of the New Zealand Symphony and Kuusisto won the Sibelius Violin Competition in 1995 at the age of 19.
The concert began with the Sibelius tone poem “En Saga,” which was last performed by the orchestra in 1933. This piece offers a striking variety of moods and shifting sonic scenery. Inkinen and the orchestra brought out every last drop of music. One of the earlier passages evoke the sound of wings and even looked that way as the violin and viola sections bowed in opposite directions. That was cool.
I also enjoyed the organic groundswell of sound that erupted at one point before dwindling down to a small sound from just a few players in the bass and second violins. Principal John Cox played a memorable solo horn passage that was muffled and sorrowful at the same time. Arresting pairings between the oboes and violins, a plaintive solo by principal clarinetist Yoshinori Nakao, and stirring strumming by the cellos were just some of the most intriguing and expressive parts of this performance.
Guest artist Kuusisto played Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto with verve. The first movement has a light, circus-like sound. The second took a serious turn with sudden shifts that suggested turmoil. A declamatory statement at the beginning of the third movement was followed by a slight, lyrical theme. At one point, two flutes, the double bass section, and the soloist shared a sonic fling that was oddly satisfying. The final movement featured nimble articulation by the Kuusisto and a quick duet for him and principal bassoonist Evan Kuhlmann.
It seemed the orchestra was too loud in the first movement, but overall, the Stravinsky piece seemed to be very transitory. The music never soared in any particular direction. But perhaps it wasn’t meant to do so. In any case, the audience gave Kuusisto and the orchestra a long round of warm applause. Kuusisto responded with an encore, a virtuosic piece by a Lithuanian composer whose name I didn’t catch. It was a very tricky, almost surreal number that caused him to shed a lot of horsehair on his bow. I would’ve liked to have heard it a second time.
After intermission, the orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, a very popular work that worked like comfort food for the ears after hearing the Stravinsky piece even though the music is weighted with a "fate" theme. Inkinen led the orchestra in a full-blooded interpretation that had some interesting nuances. The first movement showed some very slow pacing that contrasted well with the faster tempi at the end. The woodwinds in the second movement traded around the ascending and descending passages adroitly. However, earlier in that same movement, I had expected the orchestra to make a diminuendo that is always exciting to hear, but Inkinen didn’t ask for it. The pizzicato strings in the third movement were terrific. The fourth movement ended in a blaze that kicked off enthusiastic applause from the audience.
Still, I was more impressed with the orchestra's rendition of the Sibelius piece. Hopefully, it won't have to wait another 75 years to be played by this orchestra.