There was an atmosphere comparable to a great sporting event at the Turku Concert Hall when the cream of the crop of the local cultural society gathered to witness outstanding performances from both viola player Maxim Rysanov and youthful conductor Risto Joost. The concert showcased some of the finest work from 20th-century Slavic composers beginning with Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, followed by the Finnish première of Latvian Pēteris Vasks’ Concerto for viola and orchestra. Finally there was a grand finale with Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s bombastic Fifth Symphony which celebrates the ending of Second World War.

Maxim Rysanov © Laszlo Emmer
Maxim Rysanov
© Laszlo Emmer
Arvo Pärt is well-known for his distinctive style called holy minimalism with “tintinnabulatory” tonality. This simplistic style is considered both corrective and archaic in the chaotic world of modern music. In his short canon in A minor Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten you can hear these characteristics that give both mystic and meditative impressions. In the hall there was a great silence when Joost closed his eyes and focussed and along came the lonesome chimes. It sounded distant as it lingered in the air, reminding us of the vanity of life. The chime was followed by high pitched strings playing a simplistic melodic pattern while low strings formed a mystic background. This meditative quality seemed to represented the infinite universe itself. The musical tissue grew larger as the piece moved on and we heard the chime louder. At this point the melodic pattern transferred to the whole orchestra and then to lower registers. As the piece reached its climax, with the bliss of the low strings, there was a dramatic general pause. Again we heard nothing but the lonesome chime echoing in the air and slowly fading away. At this point it was clear to see: like the fading chime, so are our lives.  

Vasks was born in Latvia 70 years ago and he is often associated with the country’s struggle for independence away from the Soviet Union's rule. His early work owes a lot to composers like Krzysztof Penderecki, known for his use of pure fate known as 'aleatory'. In his later work Vasks has been influenced by Latvian folk music which can be heard as a sense of harmony given by clear tonality, a tonality sometimes broken by disturbing dissonance. In addition, Vasks' concerns about environmental issues influence some of his works. The Latvian national characteristics in his work can be considered as topophilia: a loving of a place. These characteristics represent a strong attachment to one's culture and heritage because they are indeed one of a kind.

Vasks’ piece has three parts: the first is slow and serene, filled with lingering melodies by the string section until a warm viola comes along. As the first part ends, the second begins with a hooking rhythmic pizzicato pattern. There is also a strong rhythmic feeling with a triplet pulse and a folkish melody played by viola. This reminds of Vasks' strong Latvian folk influences. The last parts contains sonorous writing for orchestra supporting the soloist. In his solos, Rysanov showed great musical challenges playing extended cadenzas. He also played ancient sounding double-stopped notes in open thirds and fifths giving the piece a folkish feel. I really enjoyed the Slavic passion and dramatic pauses in his solos that provided a certain athmosphere. After the fast finale, full of almost non-stop polyphony for the viola, both Rysanov and Joost were embraced by the audience.

After the intermission, along came the highlight of the evening: Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, conducted by Joost with the utmost expertise and passion. There is no doubt that he did not win the 2015 Malko Conducting Competition for nothing. The symphony has a few features that are very characteristic for military style: snare drum and military bugle-style trumpet calls are heard in the second movement and as short fragments in the finale. Occasionally a booming bass drum hit accents that signify cannon fire. The piece launched with a bugle call motif played by woodwinds in which warm dark strings joined. As the musical tissue grew, the brass section played its heroic motif. This slow awakening indicated the end of the war: from the darkest night comes a glorious new day. In addition, the piece is both melancholic and warm at the same time, implying that after the horrors of war there is still hope. All and all, I found the evening rewarding, filled with Slavic emotion and great musicianship.