Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä is only 24 years old but is in high demand with posts in Paris, Sweden and his native Finland and a growing number of worldwide commitments. This year is his first season as Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic which was full of great plans for all the Sibelius symphonies, thrown into disarray by the worldwide pandemic. This dance-inspired concert was filmed in Oslo in October and streamed on the 155th anniversary of Sibelius' birth.

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Klaus Mäkelä conducts the Oslo Philharmonic
© Rune Bendiksen

Mäkelä puts considerable thought into his themed programme approach, convinced that what audiences hear and musicians play immediately before a piece has a big effect on how a subsequent work is perceived. His journey in preparation for Sibelius youthful Symphony no. 1 in E minor took us from Kodály’s Dances of Galánta through Debussy’s warm, multi-layered Danses sacrée et profane, finally capped by the extraordinary Epilogue from Norwegian composer Rolf Gupta.

Even by today’s streaming standards, it was an arresting sight to see a full orchestra on stage. Camera angles tend to flatten distances, but although space between players was slightly greater than usual, violin desks were sharing stands and elbow bumps were the order of the evening, the concert played to a socially distanced audience in Oslo’s Philharmonic Hall.

Kodály’s Dances of Galánta follow the slow/fast structure of Hungarian dance from the composer’s home town with a prominent clarinet part, soulfully played. Mäkelä balanced the changing sonorities carefully, allowing the expressive elegance of the strings space before the tempo picked up into a syncopated whirlwind before the horns calmed the mood again. Cheeky flutes and a now spiky clarinet led a woodwind section on top form enjoying the fun as the piece finished in an exuberant orchestral scurry.

A mood change for Debussy’s Danses sacrée et profane for harp and string orchestra saw the orchestra’s principal harpist Birgitte Volan Håvik on sparkling form. The richness of the strings allowed Håvik to conjure an enchanted atmosphere, letting the music gracefully hover with her gentle multi-layered rippling chords. The “profane” section, with its gentle waltz, built into a glittering swirl, Håvik’s intense figurations finely played.

Mäkelä considers it a responsibility to introduce new music. Rolf Gupta’s Epilogue is taken from his 2019 composition Earth’s Song, a full-night work about Creation, inspired by 3000-year-old Indian texts. It is a great arc of a piece beginning and ending with an ethereally sinister faint rumble, pianist with a padded drumstick, harp with a bow on the lowest strings with muted string players almost on the bridge in an eerie caress. The piece slowly gathered volume, distant flutes and piccolo giving hints of far-off birdsong while the faint brass and bass drums lowly built textural depth. Mäkelä gave a very steady beat as central chaos arrived, the trombones sounding like foghorns off a misty coast, their growling blasts contracting with glissandi in the strings and the harp using a triangle beater. An astonishing range of textures including sandpaper on drums and what looked like bowing at the peg end of the fingerboard took us back to the barely audible soundscape, most of the orchestra still playing only deepening its uneasy strangeness. It is a truly wondrous piece, and always a delight to see a composer present to take a bow.

Sibelius’ First Symphony was the composer’s international breakthrough, but also the one most strongly influenced by Finnish folk music. Sibelius’ music is in Mäkelä’s DNA and it was exciting to watch him bring a fresh perspective to the work. He barely took his eyes off the players, turning his score pages from memory, sometimes a few at once, conducting with an unflustered and mature economic elegance drawing on contrasts and textures. The players responded wonderfully, from the beguiling clarinet solo through the waves of unease and passion and, as the brass came in, the power of a full orchestra as we have not heard for months was overwhelming. Bright detail from the woodwind, a Norwegian fresh string sound and clear brass playing made this an enjoyable performance, Mäkelä’s wide open arms almost embracing the final big tune.

Although filming an actual concert has limitations, this stream was a disappointment. We could have done with more sectional shots rather than individuals, and more of the whole orchestra. I would also plead with technical crews to make streams castable to TVs and devices as industry standard. This one wasn’t and although the sound was great, the mirrored picture was tiny and annoyingly out of synch. It was not helped by applause bubbles drifting across, seemingly at random. It’s a learning curve.

This performance was reviewed from the Virtual Circle video stream