The Lahti Symphony
Honest and real and true
by James Leonard
These days, the best conductors are not German, not French, not Russian, and not even English. These days, the best conductors are Finnish.
It's true. Think of Esa-Pekka Salonen in Los Angeles, creating an orchestra equally compelling with Beethoven as with Boulez. Think of Jukka-Pekka Saraste in Toronto, creating an orchestra equally convincing with Debussy as with Dallapiccola. And think of Osmo Vnsk in Minneapolis, creating an orchestra that can play anything and make it sound honest and real and true and, above all, deeply musical.
So for local classical cognoscenti, the must-see concert of the 2004-2005 UMS season is Osmo Vnsk and the Lahti Symphony on Wednesday, January 26. Although Vnsk has done tremendous things recently in Minnesota, he first came into his own as the music director of the Lahti Symphony. In his nearly two decades with Lahti, Vnsk took a provincial ensemble from the coldest corner of Europe and turned it into one of the hottest orchestras on the continent. Lean, hard, tight, and muscular, the Lahti may not have the voluptuous warmth of the Vienna Philharmonic or the stupendous power of the Berlin Philharmonic. But when it comes to orchestral virtuosity and, more important, to utter dedication to the music, the Lahti stands with the best in the world.
It achieved that position thanks to Osmo Vnsk. He was trained as an orchestral musician and spent more than a decade playing the clarinet in various Finnish philharmonics before he put it down to pick up the baton, so he understands how an orchestra works. Vnsk knows how to mold a tempo, how to shape a phrase, how to clarify a texture, how to put musical mass in motion and drive it to a climax. To listen to a Vnsk recording is to hear a piece as if for the first time.
For their first Ann Arbor appearance, Vnsk and the Lahti will be performing music by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Kokkonen, and Sibelius. With
Canadian pianist Louis Lortie, they will play the last of Tchaikovsky's three piano concertos and the first of Prokofiev's five piano concertos. On their own, they will play Joonas Kokkonen's orchestral interludes from his tragic opera The Last Temptations, and Jean Sibelius's heroic Symphony no. 2. Both composers are quintessentially Finnish straight, strong, and severe, without a single superfluous note. Both works are peaks in their careers Sibelius's Second is the first truly great Finnish symphony, and Kokkonen's opera is the summation of his life and art. And both works are sure to be performed with complete dedication by Vnsk and the Lahti.
[Originally published in January, 2005.]