Finnish Conductor Treks Across U.S. With Baltic Brew

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Hannu Lintu conducts Shostakovich, Sibelius and the music of his Finnish colleagues on his intercontinental swing this fall.
(Photo by Veikko Kähkönen)
By Chuck Lavazzi

ST. LOUIS – Conductor Hannu Lintu is something of a road warrior.

Based in Helsinki, where he has been chief conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra since 2013, Lintu is very much in demand internationally. In recent years, that has included numerous appearances in the U.S. His globe-trotting brought him to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (for concerts Sept. 28-29) in a program of contemporary Finnish music and a monumental Shostakovich symphony. It’s part of Lintu’s schedule that will include stops in Baltimore (Oct. 4, 6, and 7), Boston (Oct. 11-13), and Cincinnati (Nov. 2-3), as well as Tokyo and Singapore.

Lintu is an advocate of younger Finnish composers such as Lotta Wennäkoski.

Lintu is no stranger to the Powell Hall stage in St. Louis, having made several appearances there over the years, most recently in an all-Russian program this past April. He is a commanding and visually compelling figure on the podium with a nearly ideal mixture of romantic intensity and intellectual control.

The degree of control would appear to be a result of his studies at the Sibelius Academy (where Lintu now has a part-time teaching assignment) with the noted conductor and teacher Jorma Panula (b. 1930). In a 2017 interview, according to Lintu, Panula emphasized that a conductor “must have the will, a strong need to express how he feels about the music he conducts, or he will not succeed.” That will shows up clearly in Lintu’s forceful presence on the podium.

Born in Rauma, Finland, in 1967, Lintu studied piano and cello at the Turku Conservatory and conducting at the Sibelius Academy, graduating with honors in 1996. He quickly found work as chief conductor of the Turku Philharmonic (1998-2001) and later the Tampere Philharmonic (2009-2013) before taking up the baton at the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

During Lintu’s tenure with the Finnish Radio, he has been a great advocate of the work of 20th– and 21st-century Finnish composers. That includes older and more traditional composers as well as younger voices like that of fellow Sibelius Academy graduate Lotta Wennäkoski (b. 1970), whose Flounce received its world premiere at the 2017 BBC Proms and its U.S. premiere at the Sept. 28-29 St. Louis Symphony concerts.

Clocking in at only five minutes, Flounce is something of an audio funhouse in which short phrases leap up like flying fish in a churning musical sea. The work opens with an exuberant orchestral outburst that soon gives way to more delicate textures that call for a wide variety of unusual techniques from the players before building again to a big and comically abrupt finish.

All this should be fairly entertaining, and it mostly is, although many of the more outré sounds were, at least in this performance, lost in the overall orchestral din. This is, I suspect, one of those works that will come across better on recordings than it does live. It’s certainly easier to hear orchestral details in the BBC recording of the world premiere than it was in Powell Hall. In any case, the musicians of the SLSO did a bang-up job of it all, playing with enthusiasm and precision.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 2009 Violin Concerto had its St. Louis debut under Lintu.
(Katja Tähjä)

Another composer whose work Lintu has championed is Esa-Pekka Salonen (b. 1958). Best known as the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1992 to 2009, Salonen, like Lintu, studied conducting with Panula. His 2009 Violin Concerto had its St. Louis debut in those recent concerts with soloist Leila Josefowicz, who worked closely with Salonen during the composition process and gave the work its world premiere.

In notes for the Violin Concerto on his publisher’s web site, Salonen points out that his goal was “to cover as wide a range of expression as I could imagine over the four movements of the Concerto.” I’d say he succeeded, although to my ears the work had an undercurrent of neurasthenic anxiety that lent an edge to even the more tranquil moments.

You can hear that nervous energy most clearly in the opening movement, titled “Mirage.” Starting almost in midphrase, “as if the music had been going on for some time already” (to quote Salonen), the solo line dashes up and down in a brilliant “perpetual motion” display; and while the emphasis shifts periodically to other parts of the orchestra, the violin remains the focus of the movement and, indeed, the work as a whole.

The alteration of solo and tutti passages of the classic concerto is almost entirely absent here. Instead, the soloist plays more or less nonstop for the work’s entire half-hour run time and employs just about every technique in the book. It’s the sort of work that only a true virtuoso would attempt.

Needless to say, Leila Josefowicz is exactly that kind of virtuoso. Her technique was flawless, even in the most demanding passages (of which there are many). More importantly, though, she faithfully conveyed the wide range of moods Salonen was striving for. That included the somewhat nervous dreaminess of the second movement (titled “Pulse I”); the wild, jazzy excess of the “Pulse II” third movement (“Something very Californian in all this,” writes Salonen. “Hooray for freedom of expression.”); and the nostalgic sense of farewell in “Adieu,” the final movement. Josefowicz’s performance had great physical energy, virtuoso flair, and good, close communication with Lintu. She deserved every bit of the standing ovation she received.

Lintu is chief conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. (Kähkönen)

The second half of the program was taken up with Shostakovich’s massive Symphony No. 11 in G minor (The Year 1905).  Written in 1957, this sprawling, cinematic work was, publicly, a memorial to the “Bloody Sunday” massacre of a group of unarmed protestors by the Imperial Guard of Tsar Nicholas II on Jan. 9, 1905. Privately, though, Shostakovich apparently had a different act of political violence in mind: the bloody repression by Soviet forces of the Hungarian uprising in October 1957. “Don’t forget,” he said to choreographer Igor Belsky, “that I wrote that symphony in the aftermath of the Hungarian Uprising.” (Cited in Shostakovich: A Life Remembered by Elizabeth Wilson.)

When I saw Lintu conduct Shostakovich’s harrowing Symphony No. 8 back in 2015, I was greatly impressed by the way his perfectly calibrated interpretation honored the composer’s every note. I heard that same degree of keen musical insight in his approach this time as well. There is usually a mix of horror, beauty, tragedy, and triumph in Shostakovich’s more mature symphonies, and the Eleventh is no exception. Lintu and the musicians delivered it all with tremendous power.

Chuck Lavazzi is the Senior Performing Arts Critic at 88.1 KDHX in St. Louis, where this review originally appeared, as well as a performing arts blogger for OnSTL.com.  He’s a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and the St. Louis Theater Circle as well as an actor and singer.  You can find his KDHX reviews at http://kdhx.org/component/tags/tag/76-chuck-lavazzi.

 

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