“Oscar” at Opera Philadelphia
Scandinavia 2015: Royal Danish Opera Academy Concert at the Royal Danish Theater

Scandinavia 2015: A Finnish Song Recital and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic at the Konserthuset

KonserthusetSTOCKHOLM, Sweden - Stockholm's Konserthuset, a striking neo-classical structure with art deco motifs, was built in 1926 facing the city's old hay market (Hötorget.) To most of the world, the Konserthuset is best known as the location of the annual Nobel Prize ceremony, as well as the Polar Music Prize

But, the Konserthuset was built primarily for use as a concert hall, specifically as the home base for the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. On the first of two consecutive evenings, I attended a vocal recital in the adjacent Grünewald Recital Hall: filled with art deco fixtures and colorful murals by Isaac Grünewald.

For me, the draw of this particular concert was the all-Finnish program anchored by the songs of Jean Sibelius, who is being fêted all throughout Scandinavia this year to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth. There are deep historical ties between Sweden and Finland: Finland was a part of Sweden for more than six centuries, and Swedish remains an official language in Finland. (Indeed, Swedish was Sibelius' native tongue.)

Grünewald Hall
The young Finnish baritone Aarne Pelkonen opened with Sibelius' early, Seven Runeberg Songs (1892), setting the poetry of Johan Ludvig Runeberg, Finland's national poet. Although Pelkonen, 28, seemed a bit stiff in his delivery, the music was warm and romantic, almost Schubert-like. 

Forming a contemporary pendant to the Sibelius were Kaija Saariaho's Leino Songs (2007), named for Eino Leino, the most important developer of Finnish-language poetry at the turn of the 20th century. Saariaho wrote Leino Songs for the Finnish soprano Anu Komsi, who performed them here. Komsi, who is married to Royal Stockholm Philharmonic music director Sakari Oramo, displayed remarkable coloratura pyrotechnics: ethereal and creepy one moment, bold and shattering the next. 

After intermission, Komsi returned with Saariaho's leaping, birdsong-like Luonnon Kasvot (2013), with Matti Hirvonen playing both in and outside the piano. Komsi followed with four more Sibelius songs written between 1903 and 1917. Her voice was piercing in its intensity, so penetratingly loud that she was often singing against her own echo. 

Anu Komsi, Aarne Pelkonen, Matti Hirvonen
The program ended with Komsi and Pelkonen joining forces on Einojuhani Rautavaara's Almanac for Two (1973/1998). Rautavaara, who at 86 has assumed the mantle as Finland's elder statesman composer, straddles the line between lyricism and modernism in his music. Set to texts in Swedish, Finnish, German (Rilke) and English (Shakespeare), it was like a travelogue in music. After a prolonged ovation, Komsi and Pelkonen alternated with three encores by Sibelius, the last ending on a strange, melancholy note. "It is sorrows that make a home," Sibelius once wrote. "All the difficulties which we must overcome in the course of a long life create a love for home." (More pics from the recital here.)

royal stockholm philharmonic

The following night, I returned to the Konserthuset for a performance by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. The orchestra, which was founded in 1902, is Stockholm's main orchestra (though some critics prefer the crosstown Swedish Radio Orchestra), with a string of celebrated music directors including, most recently, NY Phil music director Alan Gilbert

On this night, the orchestra was led by its current music director, Sakari Oramo, in a program of music by Ravel and Richard Strauss. Nothing particularly Scandinavian about that, but at least I'd have the opportunity to hear them in their homebase, where, in addition to a full season of subscription concerts, they perform on the annual Nobel and Polar Music Prize ceremonies.

Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin was lush and gorgeous, with Oramo pulling some beautifully rich sonorities from the orchestra, particularly in the soft Menuet. Following was Strauss' dark and dramatic tone poem Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration). I was mesmerized watching Oramo conduct: he was like a tiger pacing his cage, just waiting to be released. He seemed to be in complete control of the orchestra, every gesture filled with meaning. The end, with its final swell in the strings, felt sacred and transporting. Simply gorgeous.

royal stockholm philharmonic
After intermission, the orchestra returned with Strauss' elaborate set of "fantastic variations" Don Quixote, featuring orchestra principals Pascal Siffert (viola) and Johannes Rostamo (cello). Both were fine players, though I couldn't help but be distracted by Rostamo's quick change out of his tux into an untucked white shirt. Things were a bit shaky at the start, with the horns in particular sounding wayward, but Oramo was able to pull things together midway through. Siffert and Rostamo came out for multiple curtain calls, but it was really Oramo who deserved the lion's share of the applause. And flowers.

More pics on the photo page