Sometimes, a performance focuses on something specific, like a composer or an era. Sometimes, it focuses on an idea. Sometimes, though, it simply focuses on the music itself.
Friday night’s Pittsburgh Symphony concert, led by Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä of the Minnesota Orchestra, did just that. Although the concert programmed all Sibelius works, these performances focused more on the music itself really. Yes, all of the pieces held a connection because they were all by Sibelius, except beyond that, they are breathtakingly gorgeous in unique ways — and each affected a moment of absolute stillness, reflection and awe in Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts on Friday night.
Sibelius’ Finlandia, Opus 26, No. 7 opened the evening. Although this work is less than 10 minutes in length, it spans enough historical ideas to feel far more significant in quality. The patriotic style of the work emanated polished fanfares and full dynamics. The brass and strings were solid and balanced and fully connected with Maestro Vänskä.
James Ehnes was strong in the Sibelius Violin Concerto with an honest, pure sound; none of his consonants and minute inflections were swallowed by acoustics. The strings opened with the most intimate and barely audible pianissimo. Ehnes and Vänskä brought out differences of interpretation in this work with a flood of excellent ideas. The ultimate destination and shape of the piece were standard but there was such attention to detail which is what really pulls the piece together and the listener in.
Ehnes treated the audience with an encore of the final movement from Bach’s sonata No. 1 in G minor. He joked that the encore was by Sibelius to fit the program, eliciting a laugh from the audience and engaging us even more than we already were.
Vänskä and the Pittsburgh Symphony started the second half of the show with Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2. Filled with such passion, Maestro Vänskä, who is one of the most renowned interpreters of Sibelius’ music, brought out every detail hidden in the texture.
The orchestra and Maestro Vänskä shared with us an encore, also by Sibelius, “Valste Trist.” It was exquisitely brilliant and engaging. Vänskä turned to the second violins at one point in the piece and he smiled with such joy as he conducted this music. That is one of the most thrilling things as an audience to see the musicians actively enjoying themselves. Chris Wu and Jeremy Black, section first violins, and section cellist Adam Liu and principal bassist Jeffrey Turner always smile when they play, and to the audience that is the icing on the cake to see that our orchestra is enjoying what they are sharing with us.