Asked in an interview to describe his nation's music, Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara said, "I always see before my eyes a typical Finnish farmer sitting outside after taking a sauna, looking at the lake and meditating about the deep things of life."
Rautavaara's words came to mind during Pekka Kuusisto's performance with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra on Friday night at the Ordway Concert Hall in St. Paul. A prominent Finnish violinist and one of the SPCO's artistic partners, Kuusisto joined the orchestra, acting both as leader and ensemble player, in three seldom-heard works by Jean Sibelius, Finland's major composer.
Mystery and sadness — "the deep things of life" — permeate the elegiac-toned poem "Rakastava" ("The Lover"), which opened the program, a work for strings and percussion that is perhaps Sibelius' most beautiful composition. The Quartet in D minor in a version for string orchestra, dreamlike and, in places, desolate, served as the finale.
(Sibelius' dark frame of mind in 1909, during the writing of the quartet, may have influenced the tone of the work. The prior year he had been operated on to remove a tumor from his throat. He lived in fear of cancer for the rest of his life.)
Between these, Kuusisto played Five Rustic Dances in a version for violin and strings arranged by Kuusisto's brother Jaako, a composer and conductor who was concertmaster of the Lahti Symphony during some of the years that Osmo Vänskä headed that orchestra. (In a country as small as Finland there are almost no degrees of separation.)
All this made for engaging, at times compelling listening. True, Kuusisto has seemed at times the past two seasons a blasé, rather cavalier performer, at least in matters of style. His Mozart last year was casual at best.
To be sure, Kuusisto has facility as a player, and audiences here seem to enjoy whatever he does. He often seems surprised at the giddy laughter that greets his droll remarks from the stage. The difference Friday night was that he seemed really engaged in this music. It meant something to him, and as a result the string players on stage with him essayed these pieces with gusto, rich color and impeccable control.
Whether the Quartet profited from the expansion to 15 or so players could be debated. With just four players, the piece exudes a vulnerability and poignancy that the bigger ensemble can't duplicate. And yet there was such warmhearted elegance in the performance Friday night. Who could object?
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.