Saturday, October 2, 2021

Baltimore Symphony Review #1: Dalia Stasevska

 Dalia Stasevska is Sibelius's great-granddaughter-in-law, but she conducts Sibelius like it's Mussorgsky. 

That's not a bad thing, in fact, in the second symphony, it's absolutely great. Sibelius 2 is not entirely Sibelius and it's not entirely Finnish, it's the work of a Swedish-speaking Finn writing a symphony in Italy as a battle-cry for a country occupied by Russia. Sibelius was trying to find his musical voice just as his nation was trying to find its own, and like all revolutionaries, Sibelius could only rebel by using the language of his masters.  

Finnish conductors are everywhere, and they're known for their precision, their emotional understatement, their refusal to impose a personal vision on the music. Not Stasevska. She came to Finland when she was five and spent nearly her whole student life there, but she conducts like she learned to be a conductor from watching Soviets like Yevgeny Svetlanov. Her conducting technique is very basic, but she clearly knows how to use it to extract maximum intensity. The brass is overwhelming, the pulse varies everywhere, and precision is for whimps. It's not the most subtle way to make music, but it's exciting as hell. 

I was there for both concerts to relish a work I love for my first real concert in 18 months. The difference between the two concerts was telling, because this is clearly a conductor who wants the Baltimore Symphony job, and also a conductor who is still learning. 

You can tell Stasevska wants this job because her program was so overwhelmingly difficult. You don't create a program that difficult unless you're determined to be a conquering hero: a massive new work - Wildwood, by Swedish Andrea Tarrodi, a work fundamentally about trees and their roots, then a concerto - the Bruch... and then a Sibelius warhorse with a saddle so worn that you had better do something original with it to catch anybody's attention.  

First, the Saturday performance:

The new work clearly got enormous rehearsal care. From first note to last, the orchestra sounded absolutely secure with textures vivid enough to eat. It was a decent piece of music, but it got a great performance. It's a work about roots of trees, with lots of dynamic swells on brass chords playing whole tones apart,  lots of natural harmonics in the strings, lots of sustained long notes, and not much in the way of staccato. The piece must have been twenty-five minutes, and it's a testament to its skill that it was much less dry than a description makes it seem. I doubt this will be considered a masterpiece, but it's certainly better than your average twenty-five minute orchestral commission. 

The Bruch was played by Randall Goolsby. Goolsby is a violinist with a sweet tone and a slightly small sound. He seemed from a bit of speaking like an extremely personable type, and his musicmaking is similarly affable and unintimidating, but meanwhile Stasevska kept the accompaniment's temperature at a boil, and during the orchestral tuttis she engulfed the hall in fortissimo fire. Her performance had 100x more bravura than the soloist's. Imagine, a conductor responsible enough to take accompanying the Bruch violin concerto seriously... Goolsby followed it up with a bluesy encore whose name I've sadly already forgotten, a very fun piece of New Orleans Americana which he played with far more relish than the Bruch. I wished I could have heard him play half an hour of works like that instead. 

By this point, I was sort of speechless and ready to declare Stasevska a new Klemperer without having even heard her do a symphony. I was geared up for a Sibelius for the ages, and we got one, on Sunday...

By the Sibelius, the orchestra was so exhausted that couldn't stay together. The energy was all there, and it was an extremely compelling performance, but the concentration was clearly lacking, and probably because they'd already been driven to their maximum. Amid the excitement, it was very difficult for people who know the work well to ignore the coordination problems, the missed entrances, the flubbed notes, the extreme reliance on brass volume rather than balance and phrasing.  

But then, Sunday... 

the temperature for the first half was slightly lower. Wildwood was not quite as pristine, the Bruch did not burn with the sort of passion it did the night before, but the Sibelius... my god...

Large musical ensembles are like cars or horses. You can't possibly control 100 variables, you can just point it in the right direction to maximize the performance. For the first half, Stasevska kept the reins on the horse, and in the second half, what was chaotic the night before became as good a Sibelius 2 as one can ever expect to hear. It was a larger-than-life performance of amazing passion, and heart, and seriousness. Perhaps it didn't tell us the whole story of this amazing work, but that can only come from the very best conductors at the height of their powers. The orchestra was exactly with her at every turn, and she gave them a lot of tempo changes to follow. There was more subtlety, more phrasing, more soft dynamics, more warmth, and Stasevska would occasionally shape phrases in the moment rather than convey intensity through her baton, but still not nearly enough of those all-important qualities. 

I was not impressed by what I'd heard of Stasevska on broadcast or video, but I see how hugely exciting she is live. As we all do, she has a lot to learn still, but I would certainly not complain if she were a major presence here. Nevertheless, the lack of subtlety is a little troubling. The greatest musicians scale down as well as up and play in something other than ALL CAPS. I'm sure Stasevska has that kind of musician in her, but I wonder if that's occurred to her yet. 

New Director Candidate #1:
Dalia Stasevska - 8.5/10

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