SPCO on its game with Kuusisto at the helm

  • Article by: LARRY FUCHSBERG , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 13, 2014 - 10:59 AM

Violinist, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra left the audience feeling warm.

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Pekka Kuusisto is equally comfortable playing a contemporary Finnish work or a Haydn symphony, performing both dazzlingly.

Osmo Vänskä, one of Finland’s most distinguished sons, is no longer music director of the Minnesota Orchestra — a loss whose magnitude we are still absorbing. But the integrity and immediacy of Finnish music-making have not disappeared from the Twin Cities.

One reason is Vänskä himself, who is slated to lead the members of his former orchestra in two programs this spring. Another is the wonderfully puckish Pekka Kuusisto, who on Friday, together with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, offered a concert at Eden Prairie’s Wooddale Church that will surely rank among the year’s best.

Of the many formidable violinists appearing locally this season, the Indiana-trained Kuusisto is perhaps the most idiosyncratic and least predictable. Partial to the new, he is, to borrow a phrase, not so much a violinist as a musician who happens to play the violin.

His musical sympathies are extraordinarily wide: he’s as comfortable outside the classical world as he is within it, bringing conservatory-honed virtuosity to country-style fiddling and down-home directness to the standard repertoire.

Kuusisto’s program Friday, embracing two recent pieces and Haydn’s last symphony, was characteristic. First was “Kata Heian Nidan” (2012) by Kalle Kalima, a Helsinki-born avant-guitarist living in Berlin. The work, for string orchestra, is based on a sequence of karate movements, which it renders musically, exploring often-hushed sonorities and gradations of the ethereal. At times it felt inorganic — less a connected discourse than a series of effects. But Kalima couldn’t ask for a more persuasive advocate than Kuusisto, or a more focused performance than the SPCO’s.

Next came “Vox amoris” (Voice of Love, 2008-09), a fantasy for violin and strings by Peteris Vasks, Latvia’s foremost living composer. “I hope this work will make the world a little brighter and more open to love,” writes Vasks in his program note. And it does, thanks in large part to the sustained gorgeousness of his writing for solo violin, played ravishingly by Kuusisto on his honey-toned, 1752 Guadagnini.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 is a summation, more playful than valedictory, of the symphonic art as Haydn left it in 1795. Kuusisto, directing from (and occasionally rising from) the concertmaster’s chair, offered a bracing account, historically informed yet personally inflected, that captured the music’s vigor and wit. His breathless tempo in the finale left both orchestra — decidedly on its game — and audience pleasantly warm. I went home singing.

 

Larry Fuchsberg writes about music.

  • St. PAUL CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

    Who: Finnish conductor and violinist Pekka Kuusisto leads SPCO in music of Kalima, Vasks and Haydn.

    When/where: 2 p.m. Sun. at Ted Mann Concert Hall, 2128 S. 4th St., Mpls.

    Tickets: $12-$42, 651-291-1144, thespco.org.

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