Festival Maribor (2): Music of Finnish composers performed in Slovenia

SloveniaSlovenia Festival Maribor (2): Rautavaara, Sibelius, Nordgren, Saariaho: Satu Vänskä (violin and leader), Festival Maribor String Orchestra. Ptuj (Slovenia), Dornava Mansion, 03.09.2011 (LV)

Rautavaara: Suomalainen Myytti (1977)
Sibelius: Humoresques 1, 2 and 4 for Violin (1917)
Pehr Henrik Nordgren: Pelimannimuotokuvia, Op. 26 (1st, 2nd, 4th Movements) (1976)
Sibelius: Rakastava, Op.14 (1893)
Saariaho: De la terre (with electronics) for solo violin (1991)
Sibelius: Canzonetta, Op. 62a (1911)

In Dornava Mansion, a remarkable setting as redolent of Stephen King as of the gentle Slovenian countryside in which it resides, conductor Satu Vänskä led her string orchestra troops through a varied program of Finnish music that captured both that northern country’s traditional musical roots and its current avant-garde yearnings.

Much of the program, most noticeably the sprinkling of Sibelius pieces (Humoresques for violin and Rakastava) and even the Rautavaara gem (Suomalainen Myytti, “A Finnish Myth”), have become semi-familiar fare. The same cannot be said of Pehr Henrik Nordgren’s superbly written Pelimannimuotokuvia (“Portraits of Country Fiddlers”), a hugely successful evocation of Finland’s rural heritage which deserves to become a string orchestra staple. Although the performance lacked a measure of genial swagger (compare the Ondine recording by the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra) and omitted the delightful third movement, it captured the music’s folkish accents with endearing, exuberant energy.

Vänskä is pretty remarkable herself. Assistant Conductor of the Australian Chamber Orchestra since 2004, and the niece of Minnesota Orchestra music director Osma Vänskä, she cuts a commanding physical figure on stage and plays her 1728 Strad with fierce musical passion. Like Iona Brown, who might be accounted her spiritual predecessor, Vänskä is a demanding, natural leader who must someday find her own orchestra to head. It will be interesting to see whether (also like Brown) Vänskä is more relaxed on the podium facing an orchestra than leading from the first chair with her back to the ensemble. Perhaps she could one day be the first woman to record the complete Beethoven symphonies.

In addition to playing Sibelius’s lush romantic pieces with sweetness of tone and generosity of phrasing, Vänskä handled the nearly impossible demands of De la terre, Kaija Saariaho’s 15-minute tour de force for electric violin. Written for the Finnish Opera’s ballet company and built around archetypes like doors, gates, journeys and the crossing of waters, the music suits Vänskä’s intensely personal style. When she segued from the Saariaho into the concluding, consoling Sibelius Canzonetta, it was with seamless, serene command.
The venue, Dornava Mansion itself, was as important as any of the musicians. Widely regarded as Slovenia’s most perfect example of Baroque architecture, and adjacent to Ptuj, the country’s oldest city, the estate was turned into a mental hospital for children after World War II, and the padded cells and moldy odors created a chilling context for the Saariaho. It was encouraging to learn that Slovenia has raised five million euros for its restoration, and awaits only the properly authentic interior fittings and furniture to proceed.

Laurence Vittes