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Kullervo

March 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Last night, I got around to reading Alex Ross’s short piece in the last New Yorker on the various orchestral visits to Carnegie Hall between the end of January and the beginning of March. Not just orchestras from across the country and abroad, but even the New York Philharmonic, “on a one-night furlough,” as Ross put it, “from the duller confines of Avery Fisher Hall.”

In the first half of the article, Ross makes a series of stimulating observations about “Carnegie’s informal tournament.” Of greater interest, though, is what he has to say about the Minnesota Orchestra’s appearance. I have rarely read such strong praise of an orchestral performance.

At the end of Carnegie’s marathon came a rather austere program by the Minnesota Orchestra: Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge,” in an arrangement for string orchestra by the late music critic and author Michael Steinberg, and Sibelius’s choral symphony “Kullervo.” Carnegie was barely three-quarters full—perhaps because “Kullervo” is little known, perhaps because New Yorkers were orchestra’d out. If so, they erred: the Minnesotans, with the assistance of the Y. L. Male Voice Choir, from Finland, delivered a performance of uncanny, wrenching power, the kind you hear once or twice a decade.

… The Minnesotans played all this with an uncommon precision of rhythm and beauty of tone; more important, they brought to bear an emotional specificity that conjured the woeful scene with an almost unbearable immediacy. At one point, Vänskä stopped giving a beat and rocked slowly with the music. It was the saddest, loveliest thing I have heard in a long time.

Vänskä has been the music director of the Minnesota since 2003. For some years, it has been evident that he is a conductor of genius, one whom Furtwängler might have recognized as a kindred spirit. The crucial element in his work is unanimity—not unanimity of execution (although that was hardly lacking) but unanimity of feeling. The climaxes were as shattering as on any other night, but the quietest moments registered even more strongly. I hope that Vänskä and his players went home happy, box-office receipts notwithstanding. For the duration of the evening of March 1st, the Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world.

First thing this morning, I went to Amazon and ordered a recording of “Kullervo.” If only the Minnesota Orchestra had recorded one under Vänskä. They haven’t. Not yet. The one I chose received an award. It comes Monday. I can’t wait.

Categories: Music