Another young Finn leads the Phil
The Helsinki Sibelius Academy, the world’s best conducting incubator, has produced another prodigy. Mikko Franck, born in 1979, is already music director of the Belgian National Orchestra, music director designate of the Finnish National Opera, a frequent guest conductor with the world’s major orchestras, a recording artist. Friday night he made his debut leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Walt Disney Concert Hall.
He’s unusual. With lower-back problems, he conducts from an armchair on the podium, although he rose from it repeatedly Friday to emphasize the high point of a phrase or give a particularly emphatic cue. In fact, the chair soon came to seem a peculiar but not unuseful prop. Every (painful?) leap up was a reminder of enthusiasm.
And that youthful enthusiasm served him well. Being young, he may not have had too much to say about the program, given that it included a plum and a turkey. The plum was John Adams’ profound, soaring Violin Concerto, with Leila Josefowicz as soloist. The turkey was Shostakovich’s tacky tribute to Lenin, his Symphony No. 12.
Adams’ concerto, premiered 11 years ago, is celebrated, a concerto that is finding its way into the permanent repertory. In 1997, Gidon Kremer, for whom it was written, gave a stellar, probing performance of it with the Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen. Josefowicz, also still in her 20s, first played it in London under Adams two years ago. She doesn’t dig, but she sails. Or maybe she surfs. She catches the rhythmic wave, and nothing can throw her off. Or maybe she flies.
Whatever it is she does, it’s extraordinary. She has a fearlessness of the first movement’s complex rhythms. With her sweet tone and inborn lyricism, she was here in sail mode, wafting with the scalar waves. For the meditative Chaconne, the concerto’s middle movement, she flew, or floated, above the surface, calm, confident, lovely. The Toccare was, for her, rock ‘n’ roll. She tore dangerously and dazzlingly into Adams’ aggressive Minimalism as if she didn’t have an expensive violin to worry about.
The concerto is full of tricky coordination problems, and Franck saw to those expertly while happily absorbing the huge amounts of energy flowing from the soloist. He didn’t, however, contribute much in the way of illuminating detail.
That was saved for Sibelius’ early, patriotic “Karelia” Overture, which opened the program and to which Franck brought his own personal fervor. And I suppose you could call it fervor that he brought to Shostakovich’s 12th Symphony, although I doubt that it was commitment.
This is a wretched score. Written to win the favor of the Soviet government, it supposedly glorifies four scenes from Lenin’s life. What it really does is flog two melodies for 40 minutes with one kind of puffed-up grandeur after another. Some say Shostakovich had a hidden program, and if he wanted to present a portrait of a leader as a pompous, crashing bore, he succeeded.
This was the first Philharmonic performance of the symphony, and it was programmed only because the orchestra is in the midst of a Shostakovich cycle. But it plays this kind of music from time to time when it gets assigned film scores. Franck let it rip.
Still, it was clear how little the orchestra’s heart is in the Shostakovich cycle any longer. The String Quartet No. 12, one of the composer’s late and more impressive works, was offered by four Philharmonic members as part of Upbeat Live. It was a solid performance. But it started 15 minutes earlier than the preconcert events usually do, so it began with practically no audience. Most found their way into the hall throughout this music full of quiet angst. Some ushers wandered around the balcony talking in full voice. Other ushers sang and clapped pop music, audibly, right outside the doors.
Such behavior wasn’t very nice, but then again, neither was the Shostakovich who wrote the 12th Symphony.