Reaping rewards from shock and awe tactics at the rostrum
Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu is clearly a man who not only knows what he wants, but insists on it, too
Artist: RTE National Symphony Orchestra
Venue: National Concert Hall
Date Reviewed: May 22nd, 2013
The RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra’s Finnish principal guest conductor Hannu Lintu began his concert on Friday like a man in a hurry. His approach to Dvorak’s Carnival Overture was as racy as any I’ve heard from this orchestra, almost recklessly headlong in its pacing and irresistible in its explosions of energy.
If that sounds like the recipe for splashy, slaphappy music-making, nothing could be further from the actuality. It’s true that Lintu didn’t rein in the percussion section as much as he needed to, so that cymbal clashes were allowed to obliterate the rest of the orchestra like a blinding flash of light. But the celebration that he produced – the work is the central part of a three-overture cycle originally to have been called Nature, Life and Love, so the title Carnival is self-explanatory – was achieved through levels of collective virtuosity that on other nights would have seemed well beyond the reach of the same group of orchestral players who work there week-in, week-out.
Lintu’s achievement brought to mind a conversation I had with an orchestral musician many years ago about the shortcomings of a particular visiting conductor. I was at a loss to understand why some purely orchestral arrangements of vocal music had sounded so stiff. The words help to dictate the shape of the music when it is sung. And they need to be taken into account when the vocal line is taken over by instruments. Hadn’t the conductor dealt with this in rehearsal, I wondered.
Yes, he had, I was told. And frequently. But he never insisted. Lintu is clearly a man who not only knows what he wants, but insists on it, too.
The evening’s main work was Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No 3, nicknamed the Organ Symphony because of a prominent part for that instrument. The symphony is one of those pieces that’s a part of popular culture even to people to whom the name of Saint-Saëns and the idea of a symphony might seem totally alien. One of its main themes was lifted for the 1977 hit If I Had Words, which was later used in the film Babe.
The symphony, dedicated to the memory of Liszt and written for the Royal Philharmonic Society in London (where the composer conducted the premiere), is a work that tends to get distorted by the sometimes dominating presence of the organ. It has come to be viewed as something of a spectacle – and beyond the organ, the score calls for a piano (a most unusual addition for a 19th-century orchestral work), which gets to be played by four hands in the finale.
The Organ Symphony actually doesn’t weather well any kind of spectacular approach from performers. Its true glories are a strange mixture, the accompanimental figures that derive from Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, but sound like nothing out of Schubert, the no man’s land it occupies between the romantic and the classical (it is both and it is neither), the consistent novelty of sound which leaves it isolated in a class of one. In so many ways, there is nothing else quite like it.