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Music review: Osmo Vanska in his Los Angeles Philharmonic debut

March 25, 2012 |  3:03 pm

Osmo vanska
During Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 17 seasons with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, so many Finnish instrumentalists, conductors and composers came through L.A. that you might have thought Finnair would have found it profitable to restore service to LAX. But at least one prominent Finnish conductor and one somewhat prominent Finnish composer were notable for their absences.

Osmo Vänskä, a classmate of Salonen’s at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, is a darling of New York music critics (he was Musical America’s conductor of the year in 2005), and he has long been a favorite of record collectors. But with his flamboyant conducting style and his championing of the neo-Romantic Finnish composer Kalevi Aho, Vänskä seems the polar opposite of the cooler, more progressive Salonen.

Even so, it is important for the opposition party to get an airing. And  at Walt Disney Concert Hall, a month shy of three years after Salonen conducted his last concert as the orchestra’s music director, Vänskä finally made his belated L.A. Phil debut. On Saturday night, moreover, he led the L.A. premiere of Aho’s Clarinet Concerto, with Martin Fröst as the flashy soloist.

I would be surprised if Vänskä were to be invited back any time soon. Ditto Aho.

That is not to say that Vänskä is unimpressive or that he failed to win over the majority of his audience, especially in the evening’s opening work, the Suite from Strauss’ opera “Der Rosenkavalier.” Vänskä made much of it. He exposed inner details and emphasized dramatically sudden shifts of dynamics. He expressed extreme contrasts between vulgarity and delicacy. He insisted that his every idiosyncratic fancy be followed in the opera’s waltzes. The L.A. Phil prides itself on its flexibility, but musical bondage is another matter, and the players sounded constrained having to tie themselves in Vänskä knots.

Intermission talk, though, was all about Fröst’s tonguing, which is the fastest in the West. Aho’s concerto is a 28-minute show piece for the Swedish clarinetist. And Fröst, whose tight dark suit had harlequin-like white pin-striping that emphasized the theatrical physicality of his playing, went through a dazzling panoply of clarinet special effects, tricks with fingers, lips and tongue. One wow moment followed the next.

But the solo part ultimately functioned like extravagant frosting on a musical cake made from packaged mix, sugar-coating conventional musical ideas. Aho, who was born in 1949 and favors big concertos and symphonies, was quoted in the program book as saying that he doesn’t see why it should be forbidden to write beautiful music. The composer also described the first of his concerto’s five movements as containing “a beautiful, slow middle section.” It was slow. A meandering fourth movement was also slow.

The fast parts, though, were what dazzled, thanks to the virtuosity of the clarinet writing and of Fröst's performance. That should have been enough, but before beginning an encore, Fröst gratuitously added to Aho’s defensive spirit by announcing to the audience that in his concerto, Aho had “re-invented the Nordic clarinet soul.” It was an impolitic remark obviously discounting two genuinely imaginative recent clarinet concertos by two of Finland’s most celebrated composers  -- Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho -- written for the eloquent Finnish clarinetist Kari Kriikku. Fröst’s encore was a klezmer tune taken so extraordinarily fast that the wistful Jewish klezmer soul simply waited out this crowd-pleasing number.

Vänskä, who happens to be an accomplished clarinetist himself, conducted Sibelius’ mysterious Sixth Symphony after intermission. His CDs of the seven Sibelius symphonies with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra from the '90s are considered classics. Well recorded in such a way that interesting instrumental details freshly stand out, the discs help put the industrial Finnish city on the musical map.

The Sixth, however, has special challenges. Called a symphony about a symphony, this is Sibelius’ least apprehensible and least performed symphony. Each of its four movements seems to begin and end in the middle.

On Saturday, it sounded like a symphony about Vänskä, who dramatized every little thing. A symphony that floats became a symphony of sudden outbursts and of stops and starts. A symphony of misty inscrutability was displayed in a harsh, revealing light, its features distorted.

There was, perhaps, a perverse fascination in this approach, and that’s not necessarily such a bad thing. Once.


Music review: A Sibelius cycle without tears

Critic's notebook: Out from under the spell of Sibelius

Music review: London Philharmonic fill-in wields a cannon for a baton

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Osmo Vänskä with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday night. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times.