"Northern Lights", my last set of talks for the 2006 season, is now finished.
One compliment was especially gratifying and touching. I'm used to the older folk telling me how much the talks enhance their appreciation of the concert or their ability to grasp a new piece, but this one was from a young man – quite young, I'd say – who told me that he didn't know much about classical music but that he really enjoyed my talk and that he'd understood all the points I was making. I practically waltzed home with delight. My goal is always to talk about the concert in a way that will prompt the knowledgeable listeners to think without taking the novices too far out of their depth. Generally I believe I succeed with that – it's nice to know that I'm not deluding myself!
These were interesting concerts. I had to make a case for performing Mozart K22 (and neatly work it into the theme of "Northern Lights"), give the audience the stylistic and conceptual context for Rautavaara's Violin Concerto, and decide what to cover (and what to leave out) in relation to Sibelius's First Symphony.
With Osmo Vänskä conducting, this was a fairly easy decision. I decided to concentrate on his approach to Sibelius 1, in particular the care he takes to observe the tempo markings and subtleties of expression in the composer's score. For example, Vänskä is almost alone at present in choosing to take the Allegro energico of the first movement at the specified 108 bpm – although I imagine there will be others who follow suit, in the way that paying attention to Beethoven's metronome markings has become more widespread. It really makes a difference, and not just because the symphony is thereby 5 minutes shorter in performance. Anyhow, it seemed to me that this would be the thing to focus on, especially since the orchestra presented a whole Sibelius cycle with Ashkenazy a couple of years ago. So there were sure to be those who would draw the comparison. The local critic did, but unfortunately he didn't have anything to say about what Vänskä was actually doing "interpretatively", which was a pity. He also doesn't seem to have noticed that "Rautavaara's cadenza" is in fact improvised by the soloist, in this case Jaakko Kuusisto, also a composer. (Here till Christmas Eve.)
I heard two of the four concerts for this program. It was great to see the orchestra set out with violins 1 and 2 either side of the podium in the first half. Given that this was primarily for the benefit of the Mozart (a tiny symphony all of 7 minutes long, but with some delightful stereophonic effects) and that it's not the orchestra's usual set-up, it says something about Vänskä's concern for detail and style.