Finnish music matters. “Music is a big thing for a small country” Osmo Vänskä acknowledges. This year Finland is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its independence, and the San Francisco Symphony marked this auspicious occasion with a Finnish tableau, featuring works by Sibelius and (a non-Finnish outlier) Shostakovich. Even the latter’s first symphony, Vänskä claimed, had a sort-of Finnish link, being composed in St Petersburg, the nearest Russian city to Finland. A bit of a stretch there, but no matter. The pieces all share a common darkness: they are not the music of sunny skies and carefree Latin temperaments. There is something of the North about them.

Osmo Vänskä © Kaapo Kamu
Osmo Vänskä
© Kaapo Kamu

Finlandia is that beloved expression of musical nationalism that brought Sibelius universal recognition. Vänskä never conducts it without tears in his eyes, he says, so deeply does its meaning weave itself into personal emotions. At today’s matinée, it was plenty ponderous, and strong on massive gusts of sound. Their drama could have been further enhanced by an even greater contrast with the quiet passages: the crescendo of tension was not so striking here. Nor was the sacral melody towards the end of the work quite so numinous. It can be one the most touching and stilling of passages in the repertoire, but here it seemed matter-of fact.

Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor comes from a land of shadows, right from the enigmatic off-beat entry of the solo violin. Baiba Skride began from a place of quiet aloofness, introspection even, before exploring the passions of the score through its many double stops and runs and its withdrawals into mysterious pauses (I liked her pauses a lot). Vänskä sought to urge the orchestra forward into lyrical passion, and there were moments of real communion between soloist and orchestra. Nonetheless, that certain something which distinguishes a great performance from a merely good one was not there. Skride could be emotional, moving even, in her playing, but never quite at the level of the unbearably bitter-sweet. The achingly beautiful Adagio didn’t quite ache enough: it did not communicate world-ending sorrow. At times, one caught glimpses of synthesis, but the overall arc was not a transcendent one. By the third movement (the “polonaise for polar bears” in the celebrated phrase of British musicologist D.F. Tovey) Skride was visibly at ease and enthusiastic, enjoying its technical challenges (largely mastered), and its speed.

In Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 1 in F minor, we meet the young composer, still in his late teens, experimenting with styles. He is clearly drawing on the influence of his seniors such as Mahler, Prokofiev and Stravinsky, but he is also developing his own unmistakable voice. It arrests us in the first movement with that very loud, very shrill passage, so characteristic of his later oeuvre, a sort of sound which you are never quite sure is high-pitched celebration (just a little off) or a panicked siren.

A high priority in Vänskä’s interpretation was the work’s quirkiness. He caught the mood already in the first movement, bringing a unity to its disparate parts, and even more so in the second movement, Allegro, which functions as a kind of scherzo. Its unconventional placing in the symphony’s structure is of course the basic joke. Here there was a wonderful sense of skittishness, of instruments careening recklessly and getting out of hand. The whole section was so immaculately timed and funny that the audience spontaneously chuckled both at the piano punctuation marks and at the end of the movement. I have rarely heard a musical joke conveyed so very effectively. 

***11