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Striking Finnish debut

Times Staff Writer

There were novelties at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday night.

Finnish was spoken over the PA system for the first time -- in a request that audience members turn off their cellphones -- as the Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra from the Finnish capital made its West Coast debut. Juho Pohjonen, a phenomenal 21-year-old Finnish pianist with fingers that hopped around the keyboard like jack rabbits, was also playing on the West Coast for the first time, as soloist in Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto. And Magnus Lindberg’s transfixing Chorale, which opened the program, had not been heard hereabout before.

But despite all the fresh faces, the evening was one more indication that you can’t escape history.

The program was billed as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Sibelius Unbound” series, in which Esa-Pekka Salonen is conducting his first cycle of the composer’s seven symphonies. In his own student days at the Sibelius Academy, Salonen was a rebellious anti-Sibelian. Now, however, he’s come -- or is coming -- to terms with the composer who helped put Finland on the map, and Tuesday he led the current crop of student players in Sibelius’ 50-minute “Lemminkainen” Suite. The two encores were also Sibelius: “Valse Triste” (being Finnish, “we thought we’d play something sad,” Salonen joked from the stage) and the unavoidable “Finlandia.”

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There was more history. Tuesday was the fourth anniversary of the opening of Disney Hall. And as if we didn’t need a reminder of the more portentous aura that surrounded that extraordinary moment in Los Angeles history, the region is, as it was in 2003, once more on fire.

This, then, is not the best moment to show Southern California off to the visiting Finns, but they had little difficulty Tuesday showing themselves off to us. Finland, with 89 music schools for a population of a mere 5 million, can’t seem to stop producing major musicians.

We have been reminded of that recently by Karita Mattila’s towering Jenufa at Los Angeles Opera, as well as by performances of the music of Salonen, Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho. It can hardly be a coincidence that all four were friends at the Sibelius Academy in the late ‘70s. Or that conductors, singers and instrumentalists continue to burst from its handsomely designed doors onto the international scene.

That the academy’s orchestra is very good is probably not such big news to anyone who has heard the Juilliard Orchestra in New York or the New World Symphony in Miami, let alone the host of first-rate youth bands in Europe and South America.

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Still, these energetic Finns seem more serious and more modest than most young musicians. Disney’s acoustics are alive, but the balances between sections were never off; the brass didn’t blow away the modest-sized string section, as sometimes happens with even professional orchestras new to the hall.

Lindberg’s Chorale, written in 2002, is a six-minute embellishment of the 17th century chorale tune that ends Berg’s Violin Concerto. Lindberg toys with sonorities so that the orchestra can seem meaty and weightless at the same time, and in this loving performance, a spiritual aura seemed to hover over the piece.

Prokofiev’s spiky Fifth Piano Concerto is not often heard, and I don’t know why. Written in 1932, shortly before Prokofiev returned from the West to Soviet Russia, the score is practically a study for his beloved ballet “Romeo and Juliet.” Dance is in the music, but so is a bit of the dissonant, naughty spirit of cabaret, Modernist Berlin.

Pohjonen maximized percussive spunk. A slight young man with long hair and a curious walk, he can seem downright balletic when seated at the keyboard. His fingers flew and landed surely, producing a bright, sparkling sound.

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The four tone poems that make up the “Lemminkainen” Suite include one of Sibelius’ most famous pieces, “The Swan of Tuonela” -- an English horn solo over enigmatic chords that the orchestra played with appropriate grace.

The program notes by Ilkka Oramo, a music theorist at the academy, colorfully describes the score as depicting “the most thoroughbred male shaman in Finnish narrative poetry.” The unusual grace and suavity that extended to the other, more testosterone-drenched movements might or might not have had something to do with the fact that the orchestra is mostly female.

In any case, no one seemed in a rebellious spirit on this night. Sibelius inhabits these kids to their impressive core.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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