Perelman Stage at Carnegie Hall is by no means a modest-sized concert stage, and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra seemed to take up every square inch of it. The sheer size of the orchestra is initially what struck me, until the opening lines of Rolf Martinsson’s Open Mind, Op. 71. An introductory overture for orchestra, this piece – which enjoyed its US première Friday night – followed a nine-tone scale but was nevertheless melodic, colorful and deeply romantic.

Sounding more like a film score, Open Mind was full of grand musical gestures. From the opening, rapid glissando to the tender melody in the woodwinds to the frenetic, repeated theme in the strings, every musician on stage attacked their instrument to create an emphatic sound. It almost didn’t seem possible that the RSPO could create an even bigger crescendo at the end when all of the sounds in the orchestra collided to produce one final, dissonant sound.

In keeping with the romantic theme, RSPO performed three vocal works featuring soprano Elin Rombo. In Edvard Grieg’s “Spring” from 12 Melodies to Poems by A.O. Vinje and Wilhelm Stenhammar’s “Fylgia” from Four Swedish Songs, Rombo was sweet and romantic; but then in “The Girl Returned from Meeting Her Lover”, also by Stenhammar, Rombo displayed incredible vocal range as she played out the feelings of heartbreak and betrayal at the hands of a dishonest lover.

Then the delightful violinist Ray Chen took the stage to perform Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor. From what appeared to be a modest beginning, Chen was soon brandishing his violin, tackling double-stops and breakneck speeds. Even in the vigorous third movement, Chen never skipped a beat; his charisma only enhanced the spirited, syncopated rhythms. Chen’s quick runs up and down the violin combined with bursts of energetic flourishes in the orchestra – much like an 18th-century ball itself – and the first half of the concert ended on a high note.

The RSPO ended the evening with Jean Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2 in D major. Although Sibelius claims that there are no political undertones in this symphony – the piece was written when Russia severely restricted certain cultural and political freedoms for the Finnish people – it is clear that it has programmatic elements throughout. The theme in the first movement, introduced by the flute, is incredibly playful and is heard in various forms throughout the symphony. But its sprightly nature is a direct contrast to the doom and gloom of the second movement, which felt like an impending storm as the timpani rolled underneath scurrying violins and heavy brass. This tortured theme had its breaks, though, with more hopeful sections, and it soon transformed into a tender oboe trio, which then progressed into a pastoral idyll. Finally, the orchestra came together in one grand finale: the affirmation of the bright and warm D major sound enveloped the stage and literally swept people off their feet, as the entire hall stood to give their applause.

The overall sound that the RSPO achieved was perfectly attuned to the programmatic elements in the piece. Whether the Sibelius symphony was meant to champion Finnish independence under Russian authoritarian rule or not, the fact remains that Sibelius’ music is incredibly compelling, and the RSPO performed eloquently and tirelessly.

Ending with a brief encore, Hugo Alfven’s “Dance of the Shepherd Girl” from The Mountain King suite, the RSPO truly shone. Sakari Oramo, the conductor, waved his baton but it seemed like he did so more as dance than as a direction. The entire orchestra was having a blast on stage, and it was a real delight.

Sakari Oramo © Heikki Tuuli and Octavia
Sakari Oramo
© Heikki Tuuli and Octavia