NEW YORK — For anyone wanting to feel good about music from Finland, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert May 9 at Carnegie Hall, starring women with big credits, was a fine time. The ensemble, returning on tour after 55 years under its authoritative director, Susanna Mälkki, performed Lemminkäinen’s Return, a Finnish saga by Sibelius, his rich and famous Second Symphony, from the turn of the 20th century, and a 2001 flute suite excerpt, Aile du songe, by Kaija Saariaho, performed with wild brilliance by Claire Chase, drawing a heartfelt standing ovation.
For his musical stories, Sibelius mined Finland’s national legends; the orchestra, with contoured, disciplined playing, likewise mined his works. The early Lemminkäinen’s Return, better known in Finland than here, was the composer’s starting shot for epic-based pieces to follow. Sibelius picked at it for over 40 years before he was satisfied.
Lemminkäinen was a Don Giovanni-like womanizer who escaped town and punishment, but fortunately for him, his good mother helped him turn his life around, and he returned in triumph. The piece is loud, brief, and festive.
Mälkki is in her seventh and final season as chief conductor of the 140-year-old Helsinki Philharmonic, which last appeared here in 1968, under Jorma Panula, her teacher. She has since led many orchestras, including at La Scala, the Met, and Covent Garden. Mälkki, supremely ordered and a pleasure to watch, knew exactly what she wanted. She showed the players how to do it and the audience how to appreciate it.
Saariaho, probably the most prominent living Finnish composer, has won both the lucrative Grawemeyer and Polar awards, among others. The flute suite, Aile du songe (Wing of Dream) from 2001, is neither historic nor new. Based on a poem cycle by the Nobel prize-winning French poet Saint-John Perse, with the flute as protagonist, its thrust is toward the concept of flight more than the sound of music. The orchestra jangled and hissed, and at the end, the musicians were all smiles.
In flutist Claire Chase, the piece had a light-footed champion. Chase, who has earned a MacArthur fellowship, an Avery Fisher Prize, and other prestigious accolades, seemed vibrantly happy to play, to be in this place now, to nail this or that flying phrase. (Certain of its passages make one consider Messiaen’s evocative bird portrayals.) From time to time the score required a few vocal sounds, as if they had burst from excited tonguings when the flute needed augmentation.
The orchestra showed off its good shape in Sibelius’ luscious Symphony No. 2, whose 1902 premiere had been led with this orchestra by the composer. One felt the performers’ gut familiarity with its warm glow, and with freezing in the dark. Mälkki, too, understood pointed violin unison and pizzicato suspense over low brass — three trombones and tuba — and its piercing joy in the build-up of the finale. Sibelius may have tweaked some other scores for 40 or 50 years, but this piece he was satisfied with.
“There is no voice like Sibelius,” Colin Davis once told me in an old-fashioned telephone interview. “Nobody tried to express what he did. His somber, dark colors are like an old master covered with varnish. The colors are not brilliant; the pitch is low, but the music is confident and majestic. There is tension, violence and idealism. It’s different from Beethoven’s heroics. Space is as much a part of Sibelius as chords.”
The final applause elicited two encores: Valse Triste, and then — oh then, almost apologetically (“for those who are patriotic”) — Finlandia, stirring and highly etched. The ovation hinted that to come to Carnegie Hall and hear that person conduct that piece might just suffice.
Mälkki is principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, so if what she chooses next does not involve succeeding Gustavo Dudamel there, then you may imagine — hope — that from time to time she’ll turn up wherever you are.