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Icelandic Modernism at the BSO

Hannu Lintu
Veikko Kahkonen
Hannu Lintu

Saturday, October 17, 2020
8:00 PM

Hannu Lintu leads the BSO in Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Metacosmos and Sibelius's Symphony No. 2, and Seong-Jin Cho is the soloist in Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2.

This concert is no longer available on demand.

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Hannu Lintu, conductor
Seong-Jin Cho, piano

PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 2
SIBELIUS Symphony No. 2

Hannu Lintu previews Thorvaldsdottir's Metacosmos, describes the qualities Seong-Jin Cho brings to Prokofiev, and talks about the place of Sibelius's Second Symphony in his artistic life:


Brian McCreath (BM) [00:00:00] I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Hannu Lintu, who's back here in Boston for the second time now with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Hannu, thank you for a little bit of your time today. I appreciate it.

Hannu Lintu (HL) [00:00:09] Oh, my pleasure.

BM [00:00:10] The first piece on our program is "Metacosmos" by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and I have to think, given the way that she talks about her own music, that it has something to do with being on the program with Sibelius. They seem to go together. Or is that just a little too easy?

HL [00:00:27] Well, there is a certain base register darkness, and just kind of harmonies that, even Sibelius, when it sounds fast, the harmonies actually proceed slowly, but otherwise, of course, the texture is entirely different. I mean, Thorvaldsdottir is full of long notes. You know, it's like, Iceland is like that.

[00:00:53] You know, everything is very horizontal and, you know, it has taken probably one million years to develop into what it is. And things are changing slowly, you know, the glaciers and geysers and the rocks and, you know, everything is very still somehow. But they are still going somewhere very slowly. And this is what I sense in Thorvaldsdottir's piece. But it's not obviously, I mean, what she says herself, it's not about Icelandic countryside, or not even being Icelandic, but it's more about something cosmic and going to a black hole, which you can actually feel in it, because it's there's a very long development.

[00:01:39] There's the slow introduction, then fast middle section, which obviously culminates into a point where you go through some kind of a black hole. I mean, you go through something which is enigmatic, something which you don't know and you don't know what is on the other side.

[00:01:57] And there is something on the other side. I won't tell you what it is, because I don't know what it is. But I'm sure that you feel the arrival, that you come, you arrive somewhere and it is something different than where you started from. And we can all, you know, think from our personal own perspective what that actually is. You know, we can just listen how it's related to our own arrivals and searchings and, you know, development.

BM [00:02:26] So the piece is one that was only written a couple of years ago. Have you worked with other works of hers? And would you say that "Metacosmos" is for listeners who haven't heard her music before? Is this a fairly good introduction to her voice?

HL [00:02:43] I have never conducted her pieces before. I know most of them. And before I chose this piece to these concerts, actually, I didn't even have any recording of the first performance which happened in New York with the New York Philharmonic with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting. So I only had the score and I thought that it might provide a good combination with Sibelius. But this is how her music is. And I feel I don't know what she herself might think about it, but there is some relation to this Baltic minimalism. There's some relation to composers like Erkki-Sven Tüür, or, you know, something which I recognize as a Scandinavian. Not only because it's Icelandic, but it speaks in the same language than Baltic and Scandinavian composers have been speaking for a very long time already. But she still has her own personal voice.

BM [00:03:52] The soloist for Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto was Seong-Jin Cho, and I wonder if you've worked with him before. What is it that he's bringing to this piece that is distinctive from other pianists?

HL [00:04:04] This is the first time we are doing this piece together. We have done different repertoire before. And this is the piece he has been playing recently, a little bit more. And we are going to play the same piece in Helsinki with my own orchestra in May and then take this to Japan tour in beginning of June. So that's one of the reasons why I wanted to play this piece exactly, now here in Boston. But I'm glad that I'm able to introduce, and the BSO are able to introduce this wonderful kid, you know, with especially this piece, because it's incredible, the power, the depth, he can produce. It's amazing. I mean, it doesn't matter how loud I play the orchestra.

[00:04:50] He can play even louder, but still maintaining the wonderful deep sound. And of course, too, the technique and everything. The combination of being lyrical and technical and deep at the same time, I think it's something amazing.

BM [00:05:07] And it seems to have a character, the piece itself seems to have a character that depends well beyond any soloists own interpretation. I mean, you have a lot to do with the orchestra to reflect what he's doing as well.

HL [00:05:18] It's a funny piece, because basically the soloist is playing all the time. So what actually orchestra is doing its accompanying, but it's one of the most colorful and interesting accompaniments there is in the basic concerto literature, piano concerto literature, and especially the soloist like this, who has imaginative tempos and who understand the drama of the piece because the first movement is so tragi. It's one of the darkest pieces, actually, which Prokofiev ever wrote. You know, it's about suicide of his best friend.

[00:05:57] And then, two sort of divertissement movements and the intermezzo and, you know, then the composer suddenly wants to give us a little bit, you know, lighter a feeling that we can breathe freely. And those moments, I think he plays in a wonderful way the second movement, just as fast as anybody can play. You know, it's incredible. Takes probably only three minutes. And then the second intermezzo, which which is much heavier in character.

[00:06:29] And then the last movement, I think, is the only movement which is more symphonic, which has more substance in the form, and the way how he sees that form is very powerful and very convincing.

BM [00:06:44] The Siblius Second is his most popular symphony of all of them. And so in a way, it's not surprising at all that you would come here and you would conduct Sibelius's Second. Sure, why not? But I also wonder how deeply this music is rooted in your musical life, or is it even possible that you came to this music kind of later, just counterintuitively being from Finland?

HL [00:07:06] No, it's not possible. It's, no, I mean, I'm conducting this piece now because because the BSO people wanted me to do this piece. I suggested some some other symphonies. But I mean, of course, the thing is that when, I mean, this is the first piece I ever played in a symphony orchestra. I was eleven years old and I played cello. And that was the first time I went to a big national youth orchestra. And I still know, you know, I still remember all the fingerings of difficult, of technical passages. And since that, I mean, you can't avoid it. It's just part of my life.

[00:07:50] And then you go to the conducting class, and when you study with Mr. Panula, you know, the pope of conducting and did with him. We had to do, I mean, basically, we had three different segments we needed to do and study simultaneously all the time, was Viennese classical, especially the Haydn and Mozart. Not so much Beethoven because he hated Beethoven. Sibelius, of course, because it's our own music and because it's technically very difficult. I mean, you learn a lot about conducting when you study Sibelius symphonies and understand his scores because they are so complicated. And then the third one was contemporary music.

[00:08:30] So I think all the Finnish conductors, I mean, we have learned to conduct part of Sibelius symphonies. It's something you just can't avoid. There has been a time when I just couldn't stand these pieces at all. And I was just so full of Sibelius's Second Symphony and Fifth Symphony and First Symphony. And nobody wants to hear number three and number four, and I always suggest them, and now for instance, we are going to Japan with my own orchestra. And I said when we started to negotiate that, "Now, please," I said to my agent, "let's make sure that they don't take symphonies two and five." And what we are doing now, we are doing symphonies two and five.

[00:09:11] So it's just something which, I mean, but I understand because they are, they speak international language. I mean, it is something that people in every culture, they can understand. And it's not about Finnish independency or it's not about, you know, being Finn. They are just wonderful symphonic constructions with beautiful melodic material and powerful climaxes. And in a tradition of Beethoven, I would say. And I understand people love them. And there was a time -- I think the longest time I have managed to avoid Sibelius's Second Symphony has been 13 months.

BM [00:09:51] [Laughs] OK. But let me tell you one thing about what I just heard in rehearsal, and I wonder what your reaction to it is. I actually, I mean, not only is the piece played by the Boston Symphony kind of on a fairly regular basis, but I played it a lot. I was a trumpet player. And so I know the piece fairly well, too. And one thing that really was important in what I heard in rehearsal is, and it only happens a couple of times, maybe three times in the whole symphony, is the silence that arrives in certain places where something completely different happens right after it. And something about your timing of that made those moments even more effective than I've kind of experienced them before. Is that conscious or are you just sort of in the moment?

HL [00:10:36] I know what you're talking about. And those are always... I never planned them. I mean, I know the potential of those spots. I mean, I know what can be done. And then there are several possibilities always. But I always decide them there on the podium. I sometimes toy with the idea when I study by my desk at home, "Oh, here I could maybe wait a little bit or extend this comma a little bit more or emphasize a little bit more this rubato." But but I always make the final decision on the spot right there. And maybe maybe that's what makes it a little bit more effective. But this also always surprises the orchestras, because I unfortunately, I get this idea sometimes in the middle of the concert and some orchestras hate it.

BM [00:11:26] Oh, yeah, there are there are rehearsals. But then there's also spontaneity. So we love that, too. Well, Hannu Lintu, it's great to have you here, doing Sibelius doing Thorvaldsdottir, and doing Prokofiev with Seong-Jin Cho. Thanks so much for your time today. I appreciate it.

HL [00:11:37] Thank you. My pleasure. Thank you.