Friday, September 9, 2011

Lahti Sibelius Festival 2011 – Opening Night

It takes a long time to get to Lahti, Finland. I left my Brooklyn apartment on a Wednesday morning and arrived in my Lahti hotel room a little after 1PM the next day. Feeling ragged and working on about three hours sleep, I was in my seat in the superb Sibelius Hall to hear Okko Kamu conduct the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in Jean Sibelius’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 by7:30PM. Was it worth it? Let’s put it this way: next time, I wouldn't mind swimming to Lahti to hear this orchestra and conductor perform Sibelius’s music.

The Lahti Sibelius Festival is to Sibelius what Bayreuth is to Wagner. Lahti, a former industrial town, shelters a quiet little bay (the word "Lahti"is "bay" in English) that sits just outside one of the world's most sonically stellar concert halls. Architects Hannu Tikka and Kimmo Lintula, worked in wood and brick and created a visually arresting structure that draws its inspiration from Finland's forests. The interior is an acoustic miracle. Designed by the late Russell Johnson and Artec Consultants, I can honestly say I've never encountered a more natural sound in a concert hall. This hall lives up to its name and it breathes Sibelius.

The Sibelius Festival is front page news
Sibelius grips you the moment you enter the lobby called the Forest Hall. Majestic wooden beams create the illusion of a forest indoors. Peering through the wooden beams to see the ceiling lights I had my first goose bumps of the night. As my marvelously gracious hosts, the Lahti Symphony's General Manager Tuomas Kinberg and Deputy General Manager Teemu Kirjonen, explained: the ceiling lights depict the constellations as they were at the moment of Sibelius's birth.

The Lahti Symphony Orchestra, photo by Markus Henttonen
Oh yes, there was a concert. Okko Kamu, the orchestra's new principal conductor and the festival's Artistic Director led the orchestra in two symphonies. There are moments when you are fortunate to experience that perfect marriage of repertoire, orchestra and conductor in an ideal venue. Last night was one of those nights. Kamu and the orchestra made sense of some of the first symphony's trickier passages. The final movement's shift from savage energy to one of the most sweeping melodies ever written was superbly realized. The third movement Scherzo had just the right balance of muscle and lyricism -- simply superb. The second symphony, one of Sibelius's most popular works was also revelatory. The "big"moments, especially that glorious finale were brilliant and I was tremendously impressed with Kamu and the orchestra's take on the slow movement. Here, Sibelius once again juxtaposes power with lyricism and the performance reveled in both. What a start to the festival!

Tonight we'll have the Violin Concerto performed by the striking young violinist Elina Vähälä and the Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4. Be still my heart...

More good news. Kamu and the orchestra will be recording the complete Sibelius symphonies for BIS. The orchestra's first set of symphonies was recorded with Osmo Vänskä and it's a masterpiece, so Sibelius lovers will soon have a unique opportunity to hear two Finnish masters' takes on the greatest of Finnish master's symphonies. Make room on your CD shelves!

Remember that all Lahti Symphony recordings are 20% Off till September 20th, 2011!
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--Craig Zeichner

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