This weekend’s unseasonable cold snap was good for one thing. It set the stage beautifully for “Northern Lights at Kleinhans,” the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s tribute to the music of the North, and to Finland in particular.
How could you listen to this music while wearing sandals? That would be wrong.
Saturday’s sparkling concert, repeating Sunday, is part of FinnFest USA, taking place in Buffalo for the next week in a variety of venues. The festival is tied to the 75th anniversary of Kleinhans Music Hall, which was designed by Finnish architects Eliel and Eero Saarinen. In a nod to our visitors, the music Saturday began with the Finnish national anthem. Several folks in the large crowd, presumably Finns, rose to their feet. The orchestra musicians stood as they played. It was unusual and moving.
After that came a novelty: the American premiere of “Isola,” by Finnish composer Sebastian Fagerlund. The piece was inspired by an island with a sinister past. Fagerlund reveled in ominous and riveting orchestral effects, mixing brisk counterpoint with frantic fanfares. There were booms from the percussion, a lyrical descending line on the cello, and blasts of stately harmony.
There was no melody, and after a while you felt its absence. The piece’s unrelenting darkness, too, made it seem longer than its 15 minutes. But the orchestra played this thorny music admirably, and it left the audience with an impression that will linger. When Fagerlund took his bow, the applause seemed heartfelt.
For the concert’s centerpiece, the ever-popular Grieg Piano Concerto, the BPO and Music Director JoAnn Falletta welcomed a Finnish soloist, the pianist Juho Pohjonen.
If you missed Lang Lang a couple of weeks ago, catch this concert. You won’t feel shortchanged. Pohjonen, who is in his early 30s, is every bit the virtuoso. As my husband said, he is like Lang Lang without the schmaltz. He radiates a different kind of excitement.
He has a 19th-century look, with old-fashioned tails and over-the-collar hair that made him look like Robert Schumann or the young, girlish-looking Johannes Brahms. He sat down with a flourish and flung the tails over the bench. He began with the utmost confidence.
That confidence never wavered. This is how you have to play a big, wide Romantic concerto like this. At the same time, though, he played with melting expression. In the first movement there were wonderful call-and-response interludes between Pohjonen and various orchestra musicians – first the cello, now the flute. The music was spacious and natural. The cadenza was a highlight. Pohjonen filled it with power and dash, and the other musicians came in perfectly on its quizzical concluding note. The audience couldn’t help a round of illicit between-movement applause.
The magic continued. In the Adagio, the cellos and violins were rich and warm, and the pianist delineated the lines with sweetness and care. The last movement was wild. You knew Falletta and the BPO would take this to the wall, and they did. There were crashing crescendos from orchestra and pianist and just the right breathless, suspenseful pace. What a performance! At the end, everyone went wild – pianist, orchestra and, finally, audience. Pohjonen gave us a charming encore, Grieg’s whimsical “Bridal Procession.” We don’t hear salon pieces like this nearly enough.
Bravo to the BPO for being able to follow that act, with the Sibelius Symphony No. 5.
This is the kind of “big music” we are always hearing, with reason, that the BPO does well. Though it’s just a half-hour long, it’s a big-scale piece, suggesting epic landscapes and wide washes of color. It must pose a challenge to the conductor, with its tricky, sometimes disorienting rhythms. But it radiated into that hall with confidence.
The Saarinens must have looked down with pride, seeing how their handiwork magnified the drama of this music by their countryman. The first movement built to such a volume, its harmonies shining forth in primary colors, that you had to smile in naive amazement. The abrupt ending was a shock, just as it should be.
The whirling last movement has a similar feeling to the finale of the Grieg concerto, leaving you with images of gods and monsters and mountain kings. Falletta’s arms swept in wide circles, shaping the majestic themes. The music built to a great height and ended with glory and wit.
How often do you get an orchestral encore? The audience got one Saturday. The BPO rewarded the applause with Sibelius’ “Valse Triste.”
The BPO dedicated this concert to the memory of longtime timpanist Jesse Kregal. The beautiful, bombastic program repeats Sunday at 2:30 p.m.