After extending Alexander Shelley’s contract for another five years, NACO announced last week it was doing the same for Principal Guest Conductor John Storgårds. The Finnish powerhouse has made an enormous impression over the past few seasons, especially with the musicians, even if the public may not know him as well as Shelley.
Wednesday night, Storgårds conducted the Berg Concerto with the inquisitive German violinist Christian Tetzlaff. The two musicians are sympatico collaborators, and have made numerous recordings together. Tetzlaff’s interpretation of the Berg is deeply expressive, transcendent and organic at the same time. Not one note was glossed over or taken for granted; even the deceptively simple opening — the bow slurring up the four open strings of the violin and down again — was imbued with a striving, questioning energy.
Storgårds is a virtuoso violinist in his own right, and you had the sense that the two were collaborating more like equals in a small chamber ensemble, rather than as soloist and conductor. The playing in the orchestra was extraordinarily fine and intimate, the brass smouldering, the clarinet quartet consoling.
The concerto quotes a Bach chorale in its last section, and Stokowski’s transcription of the Prelude from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for violin was an inspired choice of to precede the Berg. Storgårds seems to have a personal fondness for these Bach transcriptions, and his explosive exuberance propelled Bach’s fountains of semiquavers along a tightly curving track. But the maestro expected the orchestra to play with a soloist’s flexible, spontaneous phrasing, and entries and transitions weren’t always clean.
Schubert’s sprawling Ninth Symphony can be a hard work to digest. I’ve always found it a little overrated; for me, Schubert’s melodic genius never quite compensates for The Great’s long-windedness, its chronic repetition, or its meandering modulations through a forest of remote keys.
If Storgårds didn’t quite make a convert out of me, it wasn’t for lack of effort. This was a muscular, weighty Ninth, and Storgårds’ emphasis on thick textures, deep colouring, aggressive dynamics and firmly accented rhythms gave the symphony an almost Brucknerian intensity. But I would have appreciated more moments of contrasting transparency, particularly in the Scherzo.
Still, Storgårds always seems to inspire electrifying playing from the musicians. Apart from blazing speed and marathon stamina from the strings, there was a noble, austere solo opening from the horns, while principal oboist Chip Hamann’s second movement solo conveyed bitter, Winterreise-like melancholy.
This program repeats Thursday.