Review: Cool night, hot music

Classical Music Critic

As a teenager, Jean Sibelius longed to be a great violinist. After aborting legal studies, he entered the Helsinki Music School (later renamed the Sibelius Academy) where he realized he would never be a violin virtuoso. He turned to composing, becoming not only his country’s most renowned and beloved composer, but also one of the greatest writers of late Romantic music anywhere.

The Violin Concerto in D Minor is the only concerto Sibelius ever wrote. Its initial version premiered in 1904 with Sibelius himself conducting. A revised version was published in 1905 and was conducted by Richard Strauss. It is a work of compositional complexity and technical brilliance that has captured the imaginations of violinists and listeners for more than a century.

The Sibelius violin concerto was the highlight of the Grant Park Music Festival’s concert Saturday night at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. The Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu led the orchestra (his regular appearances at the GPMF have become a wonderful part of the festival in recent years), with the young violinist Karen Gomyo appearing as soloist.

Gomyo has passion by the bucketful, and she knows when to be feisty and when to sound sweet. She coaxes marvelous sound out of a Stradivarius purchased for her exclusive use by a private sponsor.

Even so, I found the first movement less than fully satisfying. Gomyo plays with confidence and unquestionable virtuosity. Yet she occasionally betrayed a harshness of sound, and her rubato (tempo rubato is Italian for “stolen time”) was excessive, so that her theft turned into distraction. She also has an annoying physical style. Her constant sways and lurches, dips and leans all seemed to say, “Look at me, I’m so passionate and trying so very hard.” Did she want to tell us how difficult the work was, but that she was equal to the task? This terrible effect was lessoned somewhat by the fact that she’s a fetching woman who was bedecked in a gorgeous gown in a strawberry ice cream pink with tight bodice and a fluffy, flowing skirt which lightly dusted the floor.

The middle movement was much better. She found the mellow elements of the score and realized them marvelously, even if she closed with an altogether wobbly note. At times she and Lintu took the music a little slower than is often heard, but they made that work well, and drew out elements more easily missed with a faster tempo.

The final movement was fiery and gripping. Throughout Lintu used the orchestra to envelope the soloist with just the right amount of sound, performed with clarity.

The concert opened with another work by Sibelius, the tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter (1906) a work that has never before appeared on a Grant Park Music Festival program. The story is taken from the Kalevala (usually described as the Finnish national epic), and recounts how Väinämöinen attempts to romance a beautiful woman he encounters perched on a rainbow weaving a golden tapestry. She sets him ridiculous, seemingly impossible tasks and though his results are tremendous, she rejects him all the same. The music reflects his dogged and earnest efforts contrasted with her mocking reactions.

Lintu drew out the dark, coffee-colored sounds in the low strings and expertly achieved a slow, steady build of sound and tension. I liked the balance, particularly when Lintu de-emphasized the violins so that the texture of the entire orchestra was made transparent. He gave the high strings their moment near the end, where the big slashing sound represents the maiden’s derisive laughter.

The ending was very slow and very soft. One of the costs of an outdoor performance is that acoustics are nearly impossible to fully control (even with the wonderful state-of-the-art sound system at the Pritzker Pavilion) and on this cool, almost cold night the final strains of the work were inaudible. But what came before had been so pleasing, that it hardly mattered.

Sandwiched between these two Finnish works was a Russian symphony. Glazunov’s Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major (1893) had smooth, creamy sound as well was sweeping and weeping gestures. The Scherzo was bouncy and playful. It closed with some frisky work by the horns and trumpets, and generally alert and perky playing throughout the orchestra.