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Kuusisto Plays Nielsen with Storgårds and the BSO

A collage of John Storgårds and Pekka Kuusisto. Storgårds (left) stands in a teal room and leans against a wall. He wears a black suit and black shirt. He has brown hair that fades to gray and gray stubble on his face. He looks at the camera with his dark brown eyes and smiles softly. Kuusisto (right) stands in a dark pink room holding his violin. He wears an oversized black t-shirt and round, clear glasses. He has short blond hair and stands with his eyes closed, listening to whatever he's plucking on his violin. The center of the collage blends the teal and dark pink in a way that mimics the northern lights.
Marco Borggreve: Storgårds; Bård Gundersen: Kuusisto
Conductor John Storgårds; violinist Pekka Kuusisto

Saturday, March 2, 2024

Encore broadcast on Monday, March 11

Finnish conductor John Storgårds leads the first of two BSO programs in the Music of the Midnight Sun festival, an exploration of Nordic music and storytelling. Outi Tarkiainen’s Midnight Sun Variations transports you to her homeland of Finland. Evoking similarly vivid soundscapes, the BSO performs three tone poems by Jean Sibelius based on Finnish legends. And Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto makes his BSO debut in the orchestra’s first-ever performances of the great Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s Violin Concerto.

John Storgårds, conductor
Pekka Kuusisto, violin

Outi TARKIAINEN Midnight Sun Variations 
Carl NIELSEN Violin Concerto
Jean SIBELIUS The Oceanides and The Bard

This concert is no longer available on demand.

To hear a preview of Nielsen's Violin Concerto with Pekka Kuusisto, use the player above and read the transcript below.


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath. I'm at Symphony Hall with Pekka Kuusisto, who is here with the Boston Symphony for the very first time. Pekka, thank you for a little bit of your time today. I appreciate it.

Pekka Kuusisto Oh, my pleasure, my pleasure. And thank you for having me here.

Brian McCreath It's a wonderful piece that you're playing Carl Nielsen's Violin Concerto, amazingly, the first time it's ever been played by the Boston Symphony. So we're fortunate that you're here to make this part of this program. But this program is centered around Nordic composers. Tell me what there is about Carl Nielsen's Violin Concerto that makes it a Nordic piece. What is it that this piece expresses about that part of the world?

Pekka Kuusisto I think you can hear echoes of some folk tunes, traditional tunes in there. And Nielsen was... I bet he was a really fun guy to hang out with. The concerto is kind of like a long, beautiful diminuendo. The first movement is massive, quite athletic, sort of crazy. The second movement is really emotional, beautiful, kind of heavyweight music. And then the last movement is just this kind of innocent bystander personality. I think he's making a joke of the last movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, to be honest. Some of the things that happen feel like that's kind of what he's doing. There's a letter he wrote to his wife saying something about the last movement, that he just couldn't help it, but it turned into this, like anti-hero. Usually violin concertos end with a really, really virtuosic thing. And this movement is not that, except the cadenza is completely mad, all of a sudden. And then when the movement gets back on track after the cadenza, it's almost as if the composer is a little bit embarrassed or has this kind of awkward feeling of letting out the mad cadenza in the middle of an otherwise quite straightforward piece. I love it. We have the Sibelius Violin Concerto in the Nordics, and of course, being a Finn, I have to be proud of it. And I am. But I think the Sibelius concerto has overshadowed quite a lot of music that would deserve a bit more attention, including some of his own, like the Humoresques and Serenades that Sibelius wrote for violin and orchestra. They very seldom get played because the concerto sucks up all the oxygen.

Brian McCreath Well, the Nielsen is less often performed. Is it something that you've performed a lot in the past, or is it fairly rare that you even get a chance to play it?

Pekka Kuusisto It's fairly rare. The last time I've played it was in Chicago in February of 2020. So it right before the pandemic. It's an easy one to remember. And I think the one before that was just a few weeks earlier in Finland. But then there must have been a gap of 5 or 6 years or something like that. I think Nielsen's music in general sort of comes and goes a little bit. Some of the symphonies, the "Inextinguishable," I think, is done quite regularly and should be. But there's a Nielsen violin competition as well, which I went to when I was in my kind of early teens. And I just saw the brochure for the competition at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and I thought, this looks good, like there was a lot of repertoire I thought it would be useful to learn. I'd never heard of the Nielsen Concerto before then. I went to the competition. I got lucky, I got into the finals, so I got to actually perform it. And since then it's kind of been up there with my favorite concertos. And of course, I've got the special memory of it, sort of liking it as a very emotional, hormonal teenager. You know, I sort of learned it at the right time. I will never, never stop liking it. I'm sure.

Brian McCreath That's great. Your own career, your projects, the things that you're attracted to are all over the map, with new music, regular concertos, conducting even, but also a lot of folk music. And you referenced folk music when talking about this concerto. Is there something about your folk music experience that you bring to this concerto that somehow informs the way that you approach the piece on stage?

Pekka Kuusisto I've sort of played enough traditional Nordic fiddle music so that some elements of that playing style I don't think ever, ever leave me. Like they are part of everything I do on the fiddle now. Even if I play Bach, there's always a little bit of... It's an idea more based on rhythm and harmony than projection of the sound. I tend to like the speaking voice of the violin more than the kind of shouting voice, if that makes sense. And in a piece like the Nielsen, a lot of it is very cleverly orchestrated. So he always creates space for the soloist, and there are fantastic chances to whisper. I'm lucky to have a really nice fiddle to play on, and this is a brilliant concert hall. And at least like in Nordic traditional music, Nordic fiddle music, it's never about showing people how loud and fast you can play. It's more about a community of music making and a conversational style of playing, rather than a sort of dictatorial style of playing. So that, I hope, will certainly communicate to some degree in this performance.

I was actually just on the phone with a friend of mine called Ale Carr, who is a southern Swedish folk musician, and he plays in a traditional music band called Dreamers' Circus with two Danes. And one of the Danes is actually the violinist from the Danish String Quartet. And because of these guys, I've become a bit more aware even of Danish folk songs, Danish fiddle tunes and Danish plucked instrument folk tunes. And it's this kind of house that I live in most of the time. If I want to leave folk music out of my playing, I really have to make an effort. Otherwise it's there kind of all the time.

Brian McCreath But it sounds like the Nielsen Concerto gives you even more opportunity to let that flower than maybe some other concertos would.

Pekka Kuusisto I think you're right. But the Nielsen has so many things. There's this weird fascination with Bach in this piece. The opening chord, I think, will make any violinist feel like the opening of the G minor Sonata of Bach. The cadenza of the first movement starts with the [sings musical theme] of the G minor fugue. The second movement, the oboe solo in the very opening starts B-A-C-H. We call that note H.

Brian McCreath B natural.

Pekka Kuusisto Yeah, B natural. We have the word "Bach" in there. There's that, and there's a lot of things that feel like sort of sudden Richard Strauss concertmaster solos. There's near sort of aleatoric music in some places. And the mad cadenza in the last movement I mentioned. I was talking to the guest concertmaster, Robyn...

Brian McCreath Robyn Bollinger, whom we know well, because she went to school here and played with all kinds of organizations here in Boston before she went to be the concertmaster of the Detroit Symphony.

Pekka Kuusisto Exactly. And Robyn's old teachers are Miriam Fried and Paul Biss. And so are mine. So we are kind of from the same violinistic heritage a little bit. And I just told her about this beautiful letter from Carl Nielsen to Jean Sibelius. Sibelius had this preoccupation. He assumed everyone hated his music. He was not a person of glorious self-esteem. And he was trying to make up his mind about going to the Nordic Composers Forum in Copenhagen. He thought if he goes there, it might be good for business, but everyone just hates him anyway, so why go there? But then he got a letter from Carl Nielsen at exactly the right moment, and Nielsen wrote the exact right thing. He wrote that, "Master Sibelius, your music cannot be measured with the instruments of pharmacists, but with the instruments of farmers, where the scales are so big that the horses and the carriages go up on them. And that's the way to to measure the weight of your music." And Sibelius was really pleased to read that. But my sort of kitchen table psychologist senses tell me that Nielsen was also writing about himself, that he wanted to write, and he did write, music that contains large chunks of everything that was available to him. And I think the beginning of his musicianship was in brass bands and marching bands. This is the music of his childhood. So this kind of brash, extrovert, noisy even character is never far in his music.

Brian McCreath That's great. You have another part of your career devoted to conducting that I understand hasn't been too long that you've been doing this. But you are now principal guest conductor, is it, of the Helsinki Philharmonic?

Pekka Kuusisto Yes.

Brian McCreath And so I wonder when you're working with someone like John Storgords, what is the experience like for you, or are you learning from the way that he's working with the orchestra? What are you picking up from someone like him?

Pekka Kuusisto It's very much me learning from him. I've played with him a bunch of times over a long period of time. And of course, John used to be the chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic. So I've seen him conduct tons, and I've been on stage with him quite a lot. And it's a very natural way of making music, I find. Again, it's not like dictatorial conducting at all. I think they're quite good mates with Andris Nelsons, and I think there's something quite similar about how they're kind of allowing their facial expressions, their eyes, not just the hands, but everything about them to radiate how they're feeling about the music that's going on. And it's hard for me to imagine anyone ever feeling bad about music after having a rehearsal with John. In general, I think the profession of conducting has evolved in the direction that having the musicians feel good about what they're doing is a part of the competence required for the profession. And of course, it hasn't been like that always. It's almost been that people have mistaken it to be genius when somebody shouts at the orchestra, that this person know so much about music that he just simply cannot be satisfied with anyone else. It's rubbish, I think. The job of the conductor is to allow the music to happen, to allow the orchestra members who really know the piece to play as well as they can and not get in the way. And this is something that I think John is an expert on. He makes chamber music out of the biggest pieces and I love that. There's always mischief. There's always an opportunity for improvisation when you're on stage with him.

Brian McCreath Very nice. You mentioned, just very quickly, this particular concerto in Symphony Hall. Just give me your sort of nutshell impression of playing for the first time here in Symphony Hall.

Pekka Kuusisto Well, in a first rehearsal, I often try to play quite a lot towards the orchestra to find eye contact and also ear contact with as many colleagues as possible. But I did turn towards the auditorium and towards the audience, so to speak, a few times. And it really does feel like there's a lot of support. There's no need to shout unless it's a required character in the music. How many chairs are there?

Brian McCreath It's around 2600, I think.

Pekka Kuusisto That's massive. One fun way to think about it is that Nielsen would have been absolutely ecstatic to know that in 2024, some guy from Finland plays his concerto in this room. So it's hard to go on that stage feeling bad when you think about it like that. I think it feels like it's a sound that has both brightness and kind of clarity, but also this very rich, warm, low register. And I get the feeling that the musicians of the orchestra really know how to play their instrument, meaning the hall, not just the instrument in their hands, but the big instrument around them. And it's quite something.

About great American orchestras, I mean, of course, each orchestra always, everywhere, has its own personality, but there's this, to my eyes and to my ears, there's this general quality about great American orchestras of just being able to play anything. This kind of stamina and the rehearsal process is very disciplined. There's no noise. There's concentration. Everyone knows exactly what's happening. As we are talking, we've just had the first rehearsal this orchestra has ever played of this piece, and it's spectacular how quickly they absorb it and how good it sounded the first time through.

Brian McCreath Fantastic. Pekka Kuusisto, it's great to have you here. Wonderful to hear this piece, and I'm so glad to hear your thoughts about it. Thanks for your time today.

Pekka Kuusisto Thanks, Brian. Thanks for having me.