Born in Kiev a few years before the demise of the Soviet Union, raised and educated in Finland (she is part of the extraordinary successful list of conductors mentored by Jorma Panula), Dalia Stasevska offered a programme for her debut with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal that brought together elements of her background.

Dalia Stasevska
© Antoine Saito

Conceived as a veiled protest against tsarist Russia’s control of what was then the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland, Sibelius’ Finlandia might not be his most accomplished work, but it is arguably his best known. Stasevska gave the tone poem a rather hurried reading, the expansive central melody not getting enough room to properly breathe. The cleanly executed brass and timpani introduction sounded just loud. The gloom and the mystery in the strings’ ensuing entrance were mostly ignored. One could hear fanfare-like statements reminiscent of Tchaikovsky, but not the murmurs of the misty Finnish landscapes present in Sibelius’ backgrounds.

It is usually ignored that in 1939 Shostakovich was commissioned to write a “Suite on Finnish Themes” – that he later disclaimed – for a victorious Soviet parade in Helsinki that never happened. Stasevska and the musicians of the OSM selected for this concert another work that was born in the proximity of the Baltic: the phenomenally self-assured graduation piece from the Petrograd Conservatory that quickly became Shostakovich’s first world success. This version of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1 in F minor recorded in Montreal was full of youthful élan and thoughtful details, making clear how much this work already contains the composer’s entire universe: the sarcasm, the melancholy, the rhythmic drive, the inspired timbral combinations. Stasevska’s hand gestures were not quite on the elegant side, but she was efficient in achieving her goals. The level of coordination and the degree of expressiveness she obtained from the orchestra on their first collaboration was indeed impressive. The score is also a showcase for instrumentalists eager to prove their mettle and sensibility. Various solos stood out, such as those of Todd Cope (clarinet), concertmaster Andrew Wan, Paul Merkelo (trumpet) and Anna Burden (cello).

Dalia Stasevska conducts the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal
© Antoine Saito

Like the other two composers on the programme, Einojuhani Rautavaara was a laureate of the prestigious Sibelius Prize, offered by the Wihuri Foundation. Many in Finland considered him to be the rightful inheritor of Sibelius’ mantle. Time will tell how long his music will survive in the public’s conscience. He composed the Harp Concerto in 2000, a century after Finlandia. One could sense a Sibelius-like preoccupation for gradually developing small musical nuggets into larger segments (like the quasi-hypnotic four-note motif that appears repeatedly in both the solo part and the orchestral score in the first movement). Nevertheless, the overall soundscape is altogether different, even if the signs of Rautavaara’s earlier incursions into serialism are compensated (in this late work) by a return to more Romantic exploits. Interestingly and originally, the composer decided to augment the solo part with two additional harps included in the orchestra in order to create (in his words) “a really full and lush harp sound when needed”. The Finnish conductor shaped with care the mostly lyrical phrases that marked the first two movements and handled with precision the uncommon dialogue between harps and timpani in the last. The soloist, OSM’s principal harp Jennifer Swartz, played the score with panache, making any difficulties seem easier to manage than they really were.

This performance was reviewed from OSM's video stream