Two Finns, Magnus Lindberg and Jean Sibelius, plus Beethoven: It sounds, inescapably, like a concert program concocted by Osmo Vänskä of the Minnesota Orchestra. But there were no Finns to be seen Friday evening on the Ordway Center's stage. The conductor, though possessing impeccable Finnish credentials, was Russian. The band was the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, settling into its new season after last week's opening festivities. And the center of attention was Lindberg's compelling Violin Concerto, a work with which Vänskä has no history.
Most new "classical" pieces make their way slowly, if at all. Not so Lindberg's dense, 25-minute concerto, which, since its 2006 premiere (and 2007 recording) by the extraordinary Lisa Batiashvili, has been taken up by no fewer than seven other violinists, drawn, no doubt, by the work's rare fusion of architectural rigor and unrestrained bravura with an intense, full-throated lyricism that can only be called romantic. Commissioned by New York's Mostly Mozart Festival, the piece finds sonic possibilities heretofore undreamt of in an orchestra of 18th-century dimensions.
The SPCO's performances of Lindberg's concerto were intended as a showcase for the puckish Pekka Kuusisto, a bona fide Finn who has simultaneously played and directed the piece. But Kuusisto, ailing, was replaced by the splendid Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma, who first essayed the Lindberg a year ago and seemed thoroughly inside it Friday. Expertly partnered (and never swamped) by conductor Dima Slobodeniouk, Lamsma was especially absorbing in her long cadenza; her 1718 Stradivarius sounded grand.
After the sprawl of Sibelius' first two symphonies, his little-heard Third (1907) seems almost parsimonious, distancing itself from the very romanticism that Lindberg embraces. It sounded particularly lean in the SPCO's account, managed with even fewer than the 50 players the composer sanctioned and sometimes a bit undernourished in the string department. Best was the lilting, not-quite-slow middle movement, its undercurrent of unrest deftly realized by Slobodeniouk.
Beethoven's Overture to "The Ruins of Athens" (1811) was written to preface a dreary, propagandistic play, and didn't transcend its occasion; the composer, says biographer Maynard Solomon, "did not have his heart in this music." Slobodeniouk, quite properly, treated it as top-drawer Beethoven, but probably convinced no one.
Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.