Jan Sibelius is Finland´s musical symbol for the rest of the planet, and the Lahti Symphony made a quantum jump in its international reputation when it recorded the complete symphonies under Osmo Vänskä for Bis. Although other integrals have had a great success (Colin Davis-Boston Symphony or Lorin Maazel-Vienna Philharmonic) this is the one of Finnish origin that wowed reviewers and audiences for its authenticity.
That set made Vänskä and the Orchestra famous; one consequence was that the conductor was named at the helm of the famous Minnesota Orchestra (ex-Minneapolis) who had such major leaders as Mitropoulos, Ormandy, Dorati and Skrowaczewski. What Vänskä couldn´t imagine was that he would become a victim of the financial crisis of American symphony orchestras; he recently resigned because of a management lockout that paralyzed the Minnesota.
Okko Kamu, now in his sixties, is a talented Finnish conductor who won First Prize in the 1969 Berlin Von Karajan International Conductor Competition. He conducted our National Symphony in 1981 and he then premiered Sibelius´ Symphony Nº 6 as well as offering Nielsen´s Fifth. In another visit he was scheduled to première Sibelius´ Fourth, but mismanagement of the National Symphony forced a change of programme.
Kamu returned decades later conducting the Stockholm Sinfonietta (or was it Chamber Orchestra?). And now he was back as the new Conductor-in-chief of the Lahti Symphony (why call it Finland Lahti Symphony?) with two different programmes for the Mozarteum at the Colón. In the hand programme biographies no mention is made of Kamu´s past visits, and quite unfairly Vänskä is completely ignored in the three paragraphs dedicated to the Orchestra.
For the record, Lahti is a small (100.000 people) industrial city North of Helsinki, and it is astounding that it has nurtured such a splendid orchestra, although a rather restricted one (only 61 players, at least on this tour). Kamu is also leader of their Sibelius Summer Festival. Also, let us remember that some years ago we had the visit of the very good Helsinki Philharmonic. It is certainly silly to call the Lahti "the most notable Scandinavian symphonic ensemble". First, Finland isn´t part of Scandinavia; second, such a statement diminishes the great talents of the Oslo and Stockholm Philharmonics, who were also guests here.
Necessary nitpicking apart, this was a very worthwhile visit. I had my doubts in the first concert when the intense and dramatic "Manfred" Overture by Schumann had some problems of ensemble and intonation, but conductor and orchestra soon recovered in Bruch´s famous First Violin Concerto, beautifully accompanied with great attention to detail and very firm orchestral ritornellos.
I recently wrote about brilliant young violinists; I now add the debut of Elena Vähälä, born in the United States but of Finnish descent. Tall, handsome and blond, she cuts a fine figure, but of course what really matters is her playing, and she proved outstanding. Both she and the orchestra were unfazed by titillating lights in the first minutes (I was told that the backup system didn´t function well). Her playing was rich, tasteful, achingly expressive and mechanically outstanding.
I had great expectations about their version of the marvellous Sibelius Fifth Symphony and I wasn´t disappointed, except in one aspect: the Lahti isn´t big enough to give proper density to the great climaxes, although they all play with intense commitment. Most of the audience, myself included, had to share with Kamu and the Orchestra the disagreeable experience of having to wait until everyone was seated, including the Colón Director. Another system failure?
But once the music began, we soon were under the spell of this unique music, phrased in all senses as it should be. The mystery , the brusque contrasts, the innovations in texture and harmony, everything was there save for sheer impact. The disconcerting final chords separated by long silences are still one of the strangest endings for a symphony. There were no encores, either from the violinist or the orchestra.
I had a very pleasant surprise at the beginning of the second concert with the première (not announced as such) of Sibelius´ strangely named "Cassazione" (an old name for a Divertimento). Its twelve minutes proved chockful of interesting incident in pure Sibelian style, including a couple of splendid tunes. I found only two recordings in my CD catalogue (in his famous scores each has a myriad) so I thank Kamu for his enterprise.
Followed a wonderful version of Sibelius´ Violin Concerto, perhaps the most perfectly integrated I have heard live. Vähälá was simply great in this most difficult of Concerti, never failing in her concentration and phrasing of the utmost fidelity to the score along with marvels of clean technique. And the orchestra never put a foot wrong; just a small problem: the sound of certain woodwinds could have been fuller for such Romantic music.
I was quite happy that Kamu chose Beethoven´s Fourth Symphony, a favorite of mine, to end the programme. He is an orthodox conductor in the best sense, articulating musical forms and dynamics with impeccable balance and continuity. I only differ in the tempo for the last movement, a bit too fast. The Lahti Symphony was generally very good, with great brio, though there were a couple of mistakes (horn, bad timpani tuning).
Two lovely encores: Sibelius´ so special "Valse triste" and another very subtle piece that also sounded like that composer.
For Buenos Aires Herald