Review: Ideas of North closes with a flourish of violins

John Storgårds. Photo: Marco Borggreve

NACO’s Ideas of North Festival has gone from strength to strength over the past 10 days, culminating in two memorable final concerts over the weekend.

It’s rare for the orchestra to enjoy the luxury of a deep dive into a single composer over an intensive period, especially one as expressively complex and technically exacting as Sibelius. NACO has ventured into Sibelius more often over the past two seasons thanks to Alexander Shelley and John Storgårds, but I felt that this two-week bootcamp has made a noticeable difference in their sound, assurance and fluency in this repertoire.

The shortened Casual Friday featured the Canadian violinist Karen Gomyo in Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. Gomyo, dressed in monastic black, gave a lionhearted performance that was almost operatic in concept. Yes, she has spectacular facility, but it’s the singing, human quality of her tone and use of portamento that makes her playing so distinctive. This was fearless passion devoid of cheap sentiment.

Gomyo was incredibly attentive to the orchestra, matching her colour to the clarinet solo  in the opening bars, for example, or to the pair of violas that accompany the soloist toward the end of the first movement. Shelley repaid her with characteristic generosity, creating a shadowy, agitated backdrop to contrast with her endless, glowing phrases.

The concert had opened with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Stockholm Diary. Scored for string orchestra, it’s a richly textural, almost busy piece, extremely flashy and flattering for the players. Shelley had it whirring and thrumming along like the gears of some giant, elegant machine.

Saturday’s closing concert began with a ravishing performance of Seventh Symphony, its single movement expanding with glacial majesty. Shelley allowed the sense of weighty expectation to build with utmost patience and restraint.

Ottawa audiences usually see Storgårds on the podium, but this time he was the soloist in Kaija Saariaho’s unconventional violin concerto Graal théâtre. Intended as a kind of apotheosis of the violin concerto form, the work’s title alludes to the conflict between the composer’s sacred quest for artistic truth (the Grail in question), and the crowd-pleasing “theatre” put on by the human performer.   

The concerto’s two movements are extraordinarily opaque, scored for a massive orchestra that includes a piano, a celesta, and seemingly every percussion instrument in the arsenal. Saariaho’s genius saves the soloist from being overwhelmed; the violin skates and skitters far above the fray, like a holy icon, sometimes paired with nothing but a trumpet and a triangle.

Storgårds helped Saariaho develop the piece for Gidon Kremer, and he premiered a version she rewrote a couple of years later for chamber ensemble. He threw himself into this physically and mentally demanding work with a combination of masterful virtuosity and fervent abandon. Saturday was Saariaho’s birthday; she could have received no finer tribute.  

Shelley’s interpretation of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony has matured from 2015: there was more grandeur, more anguish, more breathing room and romantic scope. With its great flights of swans and knockout finale, it was a splendid coda to Ideas of North.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.