Fabulous Finns at Ravinia

Classical Music Critic

In 1917, following the heat of the Russian Revolution, what was then a duchy of Russia declared its independence. It had been fought over by Sweden and Russia and ruled by one or the other of these countries for centuries, but on December 6, 1917 Finland became a sovereign country.

2017 marks the 100th anniversary of Finland’s independence, and there are many events in the US commemorating this fact. The Ravinia Festival, for example, has a concert on Aug. 3 entitled “Celebrating the music of Finland and the 100th anniversary of Finnish independence” at Bennett Gordon Hall at 6 p.m. It is being put on by Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute’s Program for Singers.

Last week Ravinia hosted another celebration of sorts for Finland: a pair of concerts featuring the music of Sibelius led by one of Finland’s hot exports: the fabulous conductor Susanna Mälkki. I caught the second of these concerts on Friday and found it to be a truly splendid evening.

Mälkki conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a concert pairing Beethoven and Sibelius. The Finnish composer’s Symphony Number 2 proved to be a revelation. Sibelius himself described the symphony as “a confession of the soul” and Mälkki presided over a towering performance.

She imbued the opening Allegretto with lots of breathing room, knowing just when to linger and when to forge forcefully ahead. There was gorgeous phrasing and organic rise and falls in dynamics all leading to the climax where the full theme of the movement is finally unveiled.

The second movement opened with haunting pizzicato from the double basses, building in power as the cellos and then bassoons entered. The brass provided power and great shine in the explosive conclusion.

The very rapid scherzo (marked “vivacissimo”) moved at a blistering pace and Mälkki drew out accurate and exciting playing from the CSO musicians. The slower trio section was lushly romantic leading back into the rushing end of the movement.

This led without pause to the finale. The music mysteriously whirled and eddied. The final modulation from minor to major key was triumphal, and the final crescendo was masterful, led again by the confident brass.

Mälkki took multiple curtain calls from the enthusiastic audience, who seemed not to have noticed the rain all around the Ravinia Pavilion.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, featuring soloist Kirill Gerstein. The orchestral opening was pert leading into a flowing section where Mälkki clearly established the mood. Gerstein’s entrance was sly and understated. He had pleasing fleet finger work which was never rushed. The orchestra offered buoyant support as the pianist frolicked up and down the keyboard. His chromatic runs were magnificent and his trills delectable.

Gerstein was gentle during the Largo, his playing subdued without sacrificing expressiveness. His sound was amiable and robust.

The concluding Rondo saw Gerstein always able to find just the right moments to place his emphasis. He put on display his ability to create deliberate and forceful music without pounding his instrument. It ended with joyful dance music that was entrancing.

For more information on the Ravinia Festival, visit ravinia.org.

“The Bells of Summer” has begun at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. Five free concerts, ending on Aug. 20, feature the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon, made up of 72 bells.

The concerts take place on Sundays at 5 p.m. You can sit on the lawn and enjoy the music and warm summer air. Some folks bring chairs and picnic fare. (In case of rain, you are invited to bring your picnic inside the chapel.)

The concerts take place Sundays at 5 p.m. For more information, visit Rockefeller.uchicago.edu.