Classical review, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Center

Arts and CultureSwedenClassical (Music Genre)Indiana UniversityClaudio AbbadoEsa-Pekka SalonenEducation

Every country where classical music is valued boasts at least one or two orchestras worthy of carrying the nation's banner abroad. Austria has the Vienna Philharmonic, the Netherlands has the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and in Sweden, that ambassadorial role is filled by, among a couple of others, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, which has ascended to the top through a succession of estimable conductors from Sergiu Celibidache to Esa-Pekka Salonen.

These Swedes gave a concert Tuesday night at Symphony Center featuring a program that observed the cautiously diplomatic rule of mixing repertory perennials (Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony) with a work by a compatriot (Sven-David Sandstrom's Piece for Orchestra No. 1), which was their only nod to the contemporary Nordic music they often champion.

They did bring with them a relatively new kid on the conducting block, 42-year-old Manfred Honeck, who took over the reins of the orchestra last fall. A one-time assistant to Claudio Abbado, Honeck seems to share his mentor's attention to phrasing, a preference for sharp dynamic and rhythmic contrasts and a fondness for dramatic display.

Honeck asserted his authority and personality right away, herding the orchestra through the alternating bouts of anxiety and exhilaration in Sandstrom's 20-minute piece, a showcase of tonal colors written specifically for this tour. Sandstrom, who now teaches at Indiana University, has adroitly sculpted a soundscape of valleys (buzzing strings and isolated instrumental clusters) and hills (percussive crescendos) that at times recalls Sibelius' mystic grandeur and at others Stravinsky's raw primitivism.

Tchaikovsky's Fifth also manifests a manic-depression though with a far deeper conviction. Honeck and the orchestra saw it as grand opera filled with graceful arias and emotionally lacerating revelations. The playing was disciplined and robust, except for the slightly shaky horn solos. Overall, the emphasis on drama over pathos was laudable but the tendency toward bombast was annoying.

The soloist in the Shostakovich concerto was the Norwegian-born Truls Mork, a much-traveled cellist making a rare appearance here. He played with clarity and feeling, capitalizing on the purity of tone of his Montagnana cello, which through his delicate fingering, almost sounded like a violin in the upper registers. Let's hope the talented Mork will return soon.

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