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Sibelius, Saariaho, Tchaikovsky, Karita Mattila (soprano), New York Philharmonic, Sakari Oramo, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, November 13, 2004 (BH)

Sibelius: The Bard, Tone Poem for Orchestra, op. 64 (1913; rev. 1914)
Saariaho: Quatre Instants (Four Instants) for Soprano and Orchestra (2002: United States Premiere of Orchestral Version)
Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony, after Byron, op. 58 (1885)

What a pleasure it is to discover Sakari Oramo, an enormously exciting conductor who is no doubt giving great pleasure to devotees of the orchestra in Birmingham (UK, not Alabama), where he had the perhaps daunting job of following Sir Simon Rattle. Although somewhat familiar with Mr. Oramo’s work on recordings, these didn’t quite prepare me for what turned into one of the best evenings I’ve had this fall.

The news of the night was the U.S. premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s Quatre Instants, for soprano and orchestra. Written for Ms. Mattila, the piece is in four sections, with texts by the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, who also collaborated with Ms. Saariaho on her much-praised opera, L’Amour de loin. Ms. Saariaho’s glittering surfaces are easy to like, and the work is filled with them, depicting a young woman’s thoughts preceding a sexual interlude. This composer is a master at dreaming up some haunting colors for a large orchestra, and often uses sensuous textures interrupted by occasional moments of piercing intensity. Mattila is probably the ideal interpreter for this kind of fragrance. As she walked onstage in a slinky, gasp-inducing cantaloupe-colored dress, a friend who had never seen her whispered dryly, “You didn’t tell me she was like, fourteen feet tall.” But if her attire and poise were all, this singer wouldn’t receive the acclaim she does. In a rivetingly precise performance that made the most of her focus and intonation, she fairly blazed her way through Saariaho’s striking sonorities. The second part, Torment, ends with the singer beaming a high note that felt like a knife blade. As the audience filled the air with bravas, the singer brought out the composer from the wings, and frankly, it is just so heartening to see an audience devour a recent piece with such gusto.


The opening Sibelius was a complete delight, and new to me, although I love the composer’s work and many of his other tone poems, such as Tapiola, En Saga and Luonnotar. This one is very short – about eight minutes – and to quote critic Burnett James, cited by James Keller in his program notes, the work is “a masterpiece of omission.” Although the ensemble used is fairly large, the group is never used in its entirety, giving the piece a mysterious air of hesitation, of an image not quite materializing.

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony is a sprawling tapestry, but many listeners probably find it too long. Using no score, Mr. Oramo brought out feverish playing from the orchestra, kept up the momentum and effectively disguised stretches that can seem meandering and may have caused some around me to nod off briefly. Pity those folks, since the work also has some tremendous climaxes that erupt without warning, and Oramo’s sense of high drama effectively matched the composer’s. He clearly loves this piece. Right along with him were the Philharmonic’s musicians, with the brass section in particularly rock-solid splendor. Notable here and in the other works, and whether in delicate pianissimos or broader passages, the orchestra’s strings had a luxurious smoothness. What happened to the precarious edge in tone that Avery Fisher Hall seems to add now and then? And a special word for Nancy Allen on harp (and her additional colleagues when needed), with many fine moments in the Saariaho, and the Sibelius – indeed, the entire program was a bit of a harpist’s holiday. But with committed playing from everyone in the Philharmonic, everyone seemed to be on an exceptionally fun ride on this evening.

In addition to his magnetic conducting abilities, Mr. Oramo has some renown for his prowess as a violinist, and those interested may wish to investigate his superb Ondine recording of Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments, featuring his wife, the soprano Anu Komsi. I hope he comes back to New York soon. There is always room on my listening calendar for this kind of fire.

Bruce Hodges

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