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April 9, 2010

Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu makes electric debut with Baltimore Symphony

If you don't already have plans to hear the Baltimore Symphony Friday night at Meyerhoff of Saturday night at Strathmore, make them. Trust me. This is something you really shouldn't miss.

I know what some of you are thinking: "Why would I bother changing my life around for a concert with a conductor I've never heard of leading a program that contains such two overly familiar pieces as Sibelius' "Finlandia" and Beethoven's Seventh? Not to mention a new percussion concerto by a composer with a name no one can pronounce."

Well, just get those silly thoughts out of your head right now. You won't be thinking that way after you go. You'll only be wondering how fast the BSO can re-engage Hannu Lintu as a guest conductor (in his native Finland, he leads the Tampere Philharmonic). You might still have trouble pronouncing Einojuhani Rautavaara, the Finnish composer of the percussion concerto on the program -- titled  "Incantations" and co-commissioned by the BSO -- but you'll likely find yourself interested in hearing more of his music. 

All right, enough of the hard sell. Let me just explain why I left Meyerhoff Thursday night on such a high. 

I'll start, as the program did, with "Finlandia." Although this is the most famous piece by Finland's most famous composer, I'd bet

it gets played a lot more often on radio than in concert halls (a whole bunch of similarly appealing gems get treated that way, but that's for another blog post). So part of the fun was just having the chance to soak up all that earthy power of the opening brass chords -- like mighty fjords rising into view -- and the noble, stirring hymn tune that emerges later. What made this performance such a memorable experience was the way Lintu had the music sounding so fresh, so bold and bracing. He drew from the BSO a startling current of energy and expressive involvement from the get-go, a communicative bond that remained sturdy all evening.

The 81-year-old Rautavaara is one of the most unabashedly lyrical composers around. His melodic and harmonic idioms are immediately accessible, even when he adds layers of complexity. "Incantations," a work in three action-packed movements, is weakened a little by the big, recurring musical idea stated at the outset with great emphasis by the orchestra; that theme is just this side of the border from movie-score banality. It's catchy, though, no question about that. Luckily, Rautavaara has other ideas churning around in the orchestral portion of the score, while giving the soloist a lot of cool stuff to do.

Percussionist Colin Currie jumped into the assignment with his usual, apparently effortless aplomb, darting back and forth between marimba and vibraphone, as well as a battery of drums, cymbals and bells. The sheer virtuosity of his playing was enough to hold the interest, but there was considerable musical value in the way the percussion battery was deployed throughout this taut concerto. Much of the writing is subtle, atmospheric, evocative, rather than assertive (of course, whenever you see a lineup up multiple-size cymbals, you know they're going to get hammered in succession every now and then -- and that's part of this score, too). The dialogue between soloist and orchestra is often engaging, but the former's contributions understandably dominate the argument. Lintu provided Currie with supple support and drew lively work from the ensemble.

The BSO has played its fair share of Beethoven Sevenths over the years. The performance with Lintu has to rank among the finest. The conductor's combination of relentless drive, yet remarkable dynamic nuance, reminded me of Carlos Kleiber, and I can't think of any higher praise. I've been known to enjoy more restrained, weightier versions of this symphony (remember Bernstein's final concert?), but I can't resist the chance to be swept up into the kind of frenzy so expertly generated and managed by Lintu.

Even in the finale, at max tempo, the conductor ensured subtle varieties of expression so that the sound was never monochromatic. Lintu was no less engaging in the other movements, balancing propulsion with warmth, and his efforts drew some of the most cohesive, colorful and electrifying playing I've heard from the BSO in my 10 years here. That's why I'd really hate for you to miss it.   

PHOTO OF HANNU LINTU (by Ulla Alderin) and COLIN CURRIE (by Chris Dawes) COURTESY OF BSO    

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:13 AM | | Comments (8)


The orchestra is probably thrilled to not being playing with Marin Alsop! It seems like she conducts every week and we never see any one else. I personally love to hear the BSO with more interesting conductors, will make sure to make this concert.

I could not AGREE MORE. I was there last night. Having heard my fair share of Finlandia and Beethoven's 7th, I was prepared to be bored with the exception of the percussion piece. Was I ever wrong. To me, this was the finest, most cutting edge and emotional version of both of these standard pieces that I have heard. The orchestra was SMOKING HOT last night, and it was a real joy to watch Hannu Lintu. Sitting in box A left, I could see his expressive and expansive conducting. Amazing, and well worth going if you can. If you were wondering, it was me shouting BRAVO along with all of my closest friends, the other audience members!

I also agree with your review of this concert. I was at the Thursday performance and was thrilled with the entire concert. The comparison to Kleiber in Beethoven's 7th is apt. I was visiting Baltimore on business, and this was the first time I've heard the BSO live. What a treasure you have.

In Li├Ęge, Belgium we worked with Mr. Lintu and he is amazing, and not just the concerts. He has an immediate effect on the orchestra in rehearsal. He really knows how to rehearse an orchestra. A very motivational man with outstanding charisma and real conducting skill.

I was at the Friday night performance and was similarly impressed with Mr. Lintu, who received a very warm reception from the audience. Even the orchestra seemed impressed and delighted with his conducting and intense style.

If only the moron with the cell phone who accompanied the end of the first movement of the 7th - noticed by Mr. Lintu - had remained home. As well as the usual chorus of plague ridden coughers and sneezers. It's often like two concerts in one at the Meyerhoff, with all that audience racket. But the concert was still a pleasure to see and hear.

We saw this same concert Saturday at Strathmore Hall in Rockville and it was amazing. Every moment of the evening was riveting, entertaining (Lintu's over-the-top gestures and facial expressions) and exciting. The final movement of the Beethoven BLISTERED. The brass section (always such a disappointment with the National Symphony) was brilliant in the Sibelius. What a great concert! More Lintu, please!

Brilliant! And bravo! I saw BOTH Thursday and Friday nights' concerts. It was THAT good. What a pleasure to feel such a talented orchestra blossom in the presence of a gifted conductor--you could positively FEEL the energy and joy radiating from the musicians throughout the hall. I was transported.... Yes, more Lintu, please!

The slow movement of the Beethoven was marvelous - the modulation, the fitting-together of the sections.

Couldn't agree more. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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