The National Orchestral Institute and Festival provides conductors with the opportunity to lead and teach talented young musicians, and talented maestros have always come to the University of Maryland’s College Park campus to do just that. But never have I seen a bigger name in the conducting biz come to the Dekelboum Concert Hall as part of the NOI+F than the guy who showed up Saturday night: Osmo Vänskä, who came from Finland to music-direct the Minnesota Orchestra into the first rank among American bands, and who has won accolades up to and including Grammys for conducting the music of his countryman Jean Sibelius.
If you’ve been to a few concerts by the yearly iterations of the somewhat eponymous National Festival Orchestra, you know that sometimes they sound like an ensemble of extremely talented students learning their trade, and sometimes that talent and the musicians’ youthful enthusiasm create something beyond what a professional orchestra can do. Happily for my decision to pay a babysitter so I could go hear it, this was one of the latter concerts.
Carl Nielsen’s overture to Maskarade started things off by unspooling smoothly, but Vänskä and the orchestra didn’t quite make it fizz with fun. The orchestra seemed to enjoy itself more in Witold Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra, which, like Bela Bartok’s genre-originating essay in this form, combines folk tunes, classical structures, and unusual but exciting textures and sounds. (My favorite unexpected combo on Saturday was the back-and-forth between the double basses and a solo timpani.)
Here Vänskä kept a firm rein on tempos and made sure the overall shape of the score emerged, while the orchestra sounded really, really good on all desks — brass swaggered and murmured, woodwinds delivered both succulent and piquant tones, strings sounded smooth playing super-fast or sustaining slow melodies with their bows up on the bridge, and a vast array of percussion colored it all. This was a true showcase of the colors and affects an orchestra can deliver, and it would have been the most memorable performance on any number of concert programs.
But this particular concert was billed as “Vänskä Conducts Sibelius” for a reason, and after intermission conductor and orchestra delivered a shatteringly intense performance of the composer’s Symphony no. 2. It hooked you from the beginning — the opening repeated chords murmured soft and lush from the strings, looking for a resolution, and Vänskä allowed them to fade into the distance just a little before bringing in the first melodic building block. Vänskä took his time throughout, separating the score into paragraphs with pregnant pauses and gradually building to irresistible climaxes that then took unexpected detours. The second, slow movement of the symphony, in particular, sounded like Vänskä and the orchestra were constructing it before our eyes using granite blocks of melody: it felt both personal and monumental, stark and desperately affecting.
I’ve been listening to Sibelius’s second since the summer after I graduated from high school. Vänskä and the National Festival Orchestra made me feel like I was hearing it for the first time again — those chords that give you some of the emotional resolution you want but not quite all, the unique twists and turns of Sibelius’ musical rhetoric, the shock of the downshift to the pastoral trio section in the third movement, the thrilling transition between the third and fourth movements followed by the biggest tune of the work, here shining like a sun from the strings. It was all vivid and new, just as it must have been for most of the National Festival Orchestra’s musicians, just as Vänskä must try to make it every time he conducts this music he knows so well. This was a performance everyone in the hall will remember for a long time.