How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
I chose the second option. Practicing can be a drag, and I’m good at screaming in concert halls.
The Minnesota Orchestra and guest soloist Hilary Hahn take the stage at Carnegie Hall on Thursday, March 3rd. This past weekend, they performed the program they’ll be bringing on tour. I went on Friday and Saturday nights to get a sense of how the orchestra is sounding in this benchmark repertoire.
The program begins with Sibelius’s underplayed third symphony. Music director Osmo Vänskä recently described the piece in a Minnesota Public Radio interview: “I love all of the symphonies, but in this context I would like to give something which is almost totally unknown piece, but great piece of music.”
It’s quite the gift of a Carnegie curtain-raiser, lean and intellectual and dangerously exposed. As a listener, I only began engaging with Sibelius 3 a couple of months ago, and I confess, it hasn’t always been the easiest of journeys. Although I’ve studied a few recordings, including Osmo’s gorgeous account with the Lahti Symphony, even there, this piece can sound more like a cluster of aloof and icy moments than a compelling, cohesive whole.
I don’t know how or why, but in Minneapolis, within the first few notes, it all started to make sense. (Because I was seeing it live? Because of these players? Osmo evolving? The ephemeral magic of the night? And will their unity of expression be replicated in New York? Who knows.) It was a performance of savage bounce, tightly controlled.
I could write a very long entry picking out sonic highlights. The way the brass flared in the first showstopping moment of the night… How a few moments later the strings diluted into whispered triple pianissimos… The way the wintry-colored woodwinds fluttered notes up and down… How the violas churned away at their thankless spiccato, setting the stage for the other instruments… The textural richness of the second movement, where Osmo drew forth the strings to converse in ambiguity with the winds… Bewildering fugue-type passages in the finale that felt like watching someone sword-fight in their sleep…
All that being said, the thing I appreciated the most was the way that Osmo played with time and suspension of time. This was lovemaking with no end goal. Phrases seemed to lead somewhere, then to pause and fade. Some new idea would emerge from the masterfully judged confusion. We’d follow it, then be turned around, sand sifting underneath our feet, while various instruments charged away at gradually realized page-long crescendos.
You know how the first movement of Sibelius 5 so famously propels its listeners to a grand catharsis that never actually comes? How you realize that the journey itself has been the very destination you’ve been seeking? This weekend, the whole third symphony felt like that. If the orchestra pulls it off in New York as persuasively as it did this weekend, it will be a dizzyingly effective curtain-raiser.
The question of instrumental technique as distinct from musicality fascinates me. How can two things be so integral to the other, yet so completely different? Ask a group of violinists who the greatest one alive is and you’ll probably get twenty names. Ask us who the greatest technician is, and you’ll probably only get three or four names, if that. Hilary Hahn would appear on both lists.
I’d never seen her live before this weekend. (She hasn’t appeared with the Minnesota Orchestra since 1998, which must rank among the dumbest artistic decisions made here in recent years.) Consequently, I’m only familiar with her through her recordings. I have to confess that sometimes as a listener I want more from her. More dynamics, more detail…more danger. But I have a weakness for superhuman technique, and even when I don’t love her performances, I always respect them. (Who doesn’t?)
Before her performance of the Sibelius concerto, she said something very interesting to Minnesota Public Radio: “It seems like to an audience maybe the soloist comes in and says this is how we’re doing it and everyone just does it that way. It’s really not that way at all. I feel sometimes like I’m the one that does even more adapting because I’m one person, and I can adapt. And sometimes an orchestra being so many people they have a strength in the way that they play as an ensemble, so why break that if I can find a way to fit into their way of playing as well?”
Those were not just nice words. Her collaborative attitude was obvious from those very first notes of ethereality. I’ve never thought of Hahn as a player who prioritizes dynamic contrast. But the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä does, so for that famous whispery opening, she adapted brilliantly by playing on a single hair, and it was mesmerizing. In the string-crossing and double-stop passages, she wielded a beautiful scuffiness of tone, a desperation of execution. She projected her sound brilliantly; she never fought to be heard. And when the orchestra swelled up for their solos, turbulent themes roiling all around her, she turned to look at each section, absorbing, maybe marveling at it all.
As the first movement unfolded, it became increasingly clear she wasn’t wielding dynamic contrasts as a mere blending technique. She carried them into the cadenza, creating the most breathless moments of the night. She, like Osmo, played with time and suspension of time, pushing the narrative forward with electric flurries of double-stops, then lurching it back with quiet and questioning trills.
The second movement was raw heartache; its final note a perfectly judged fade into oblivion…
And during the finale, it was hard for me to think about the music because the technique was so blinding. Two quick questions: who plays the third movement of the Sibelius at the marked tempo, and who can actually pull it off? One quick answer: Hilary Hahn.
Anything I had ever thought she lacked in recordings, she brought out on a silver platter live. You want dynamics? Here, have ALL OF THEM. You want detail? Voila, dozens upon dozens of details, every last one sounding fresh and inspired and new. Danger? Ha. If this at quarter note 92 isn’t danger, what is?
(By the way, the orchestra strings rocked their attacks in the third movement tuttis. If principal cello Tony Ross doesn’t break a string here at Carnegie, some law of physics will be.)
I don’t think I’ve seen a faster standing ovation. Ms. Hahn took deep and graceful bows. As the audience applauded, she slowly spun around and applauded the collaborators surrounding her. Her inevitable encore of solo Bach was divine.
To Finnish off the night (pun FINNtended), we circled back to the beginning…to Sibelius’s first symphony.
Sibelius’s first is a beginning in more ways than one. Happily, the historic lockout becomes increasingly irrelevant to the orchestra’s present. I imagine that after the inevitable New York comeback stories are written, it will recede into memory completely. But this is also a piece that was last played here in March 2014, before Osmo’s return was guaranteed. At the time of that last performance, it held every possibility of being Osmo’s glorious farewell to his beloved band.
Institutional memory is a potent thing. I remember that performance and the accompanying bittersweet emotions of exultation and joy and fear. I remember dressing in blue and white, the colors of the Finnish flag, along with a huge chunk of the audience, in an attempt to convince the board to hire Osmo back. Heck, I somehow ended the weekend with a handful of flowers from the blue and white bouquet that had graced the conductor’s podium, and I hung the blooms on a hanger and dried them. Yes, I still have them, and yes, I’m fully aware this makes me sound like the Minnesota Orchestra’s version of Miss Havisham. Point being, it was unforgettable. I don’t know if the players or other audience members feel the same, but I can’t untangle the First from the emotions of that early spring weekend in 2014…the thaw just beginning.
In the last portion of his MPR interview, Osmo shared a story that recently he was listening to a recording of Sibelius on the radio. He called it “not good.” Then the announcer revealed it was one of his recordings.
What does that mean?, announcer Brian Newhouse asked. Osmo answered: “We are all changing. And life is changing. And that’s good.”
So. Has the orchestra’s Sibelius 1 changed in the last couple of years? The details certainly have. Compared to the 2014 performance etched in my memory, and to the Minnesota Orchestra’s Grammy-winning 2013 recording, this performance had a greater sense of sweep and momentum. (The Star Tribune cited the scherzo’s “amazingly fast pace,” and the Pioneer Press alluded to “fortissimos [that] might loosen the gold leaf on Carnegie Hall’s walls.” I would have gone with the descriptor BATS**T INSANE, but I guess that’s why I’m a blogger.) It felt bigger, plusher, somehow both more assured and more adventurous. There were moments where the frantic tempo threatened to topple into scrambles, but it didn’t seem to matter, because you had to admire the gumption of the thing. The air itself tingled with a kind of manic energy.
Unlike the Pioneer Press, I caught snatched moments of gentleness and repose here and there. The majesty of the last movement’s big balletic theme, for instance, made the tears spill down my lashes. Those tears were followed by a big and bittersweet smile.
I celebrate the resurrection of a great American orchestra, and I celebrate coming through the past few years intact. Call me unprofessional, but I think it’s a weep-worthy thing.
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