No grand gestures or competitive glory, just quiet power, dignity and clean piano playing. Nelson Freire made his debut in 1944 at the age of just four and is one of the greatest pianists of his generation. The premiere of a new piece by Lotta Wennäkoski will also have audience members listening intently. The work is the first in a series of Helsinki Variations commissioned for the Finland 100 centenary year, in which six composers were invited to choose a Finnish composition from before 1945 as a source of inspiration.
A conductor born and bred in Helsinki, Susanna Mälkki grew up to the accompaniment of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2004 she received her first invitation to conduct the orchestra of which she would become Chief Conductor in autumn 2016. Her path to the conductor’s podium passed through the cello classes of the Sibelius Academy and the Edsberg Institute in Stockholm, however, and the position of principal cellist in the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. She made her conducting breakthrough in 1999, at the Helsinki Festival, and her first regular conducting appointment was as Artistic Director of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra. Her Music Directorship of the celebrated Ensemble Intercontemporain (2006–2013) established her as a profound interpreter of music of the present day.
Susanna Mälkki has conducted the world’s finest orchestras. In season 2017-18 she made her debut at the Vienna State Opera season and took over as Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Musical America voted her Conductor of the Year 2017.
During the 2019-2020 concert season Mälkki will debut at both the Orchestre de Paris and the Orchestra dell’ Accademia Nationale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. Other highlights of the upcoming season include concerts with the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as with the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. At the Paris Opera she will be conducting Philippe Boesmans’ Yvonne, Princess of Burgundy.
“Like everything in life, music works through love; maybe it’s something to do with my star sign, I’m Libra, they say it’s the sign of love. I loved my teacher very much and I would have done anything she asked of me,” says Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire (b. 1944). While classical piano is his chosen path, Freire says having an open mind is crucial to keeping intuition and inspiration alive. Cinema is his second passion, and he is also a huge fan of jazz.
A child prodigy with perfect pitch, Freire gave his first concert at the age of four and has since appeared with the world’s leading orchestras and conductors, and recorded with the biggest labels. For a long time Decca called him one of the piano’s best-kept secrets, since he was mostly heard only in concert and on the radio, until in 1999 he released an album in the Philips Great Pianists Of The 20th Century series. So far this year he has been the soloist in Beethoven’s fourth Piano Concerto with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Monte Carlo and other orchestras.
Hector Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture
Hector Berlioz (1803–1869) was a student at the Paris Conservatory when he won the Prix de Rome and a chance to spend two years at the Villa Medici in the Eternal City. He preferred to use it as a base for excursions into the countryside, however, staying at inns and listening to local musicians. In 1834, greatly impressed by the (partly fake) memoirs of the Renaissance artist Benvenuto Cellini, he began composing an opera on one episode from them. Its premiere in Paris in autumn 1838 was a complete fiasco; the second performance, in 1852, fared little better and the opera is still almost never performed. Meanwhile, he had begun putting together music from the opera as an orchestral work comprising a carnival scene and love music assigned to the leading characters, Cellini and Teresa Balducci. The premiere of the Roman Carnival Overture, in 1844, got a standing ovation.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) dreamt of becoming a pianist-composer until deafness put an end to that. On the programme for his last public appearance were the premieres of the 5th, 6th and Choral Symphony, plus 2 movements from his Mass in C and the 4th Piano Concerto. He also improvised at the keyboard. The concerto got a good reception, despite the fact that the audience had to sit through a marathon concert virtually sight-read by poorly-rehearsed singers and players in a freezing cold hall. Those expecting something more dramatic were nevertheless disappointed and the concerto was soon forgotten.
The opening is an immediate break with tradition in that it begins with a piano solo. During the enigmatic second movement only 72 bars long, piano and orchestra engage in an intensive dialogue sometimes said to have been inspired by the myth of Orpheus and the furies, but there is nothing to substantiate this claim. The third movement is a sprightly, dancing Rondo.
Lotta Wennäkoski: Of Footprints and Light
Of Footprints and Light by Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski (b. 1970) is the first in a series of Helsinki Variations commissioned by the Helsinki Philharmonic. Each Variation was to be based on a Finnish work composed before 1945. For hers, Wennäkoski took the unfinished opera Asiens ljus (The Light of Asia) by Ida Moberg (1859–1947) telling about the life of the Buddha. In the scene she chose, the young, closely guarded Prince Siddhartha yearns for the world beyond the gates of the palace garden. Despite the topic, the music of the opera sounds not particularly oriental but romantically melancholy. The daughter of an instrument maker in the heart of Helsinki, Ida Moberg led an unusual life compared with her contemporaries, and visions of a composer colleague pacing the same streets as her a century before began to appeal to Wennäkoski. A recurring phrase in the piano score transformed in her mind into Ida’s footsteps.
Robert Schumann: Overture, Scherzo and Finale in E Major, Op. 52
The year 1841 was one of orchestral music for Robert Schumann (1810–1856): two symphonies, a Fantasia for piano and orchestra, and a three-movement Sinfonietta. He originally intended the last of these as a symphony, but abandoned the idea because it lacked the traditional slow movement. Before its premiere in 1841, he therefore renamed it Overture, Scherzo and Finale. The reception was very cool, and Schumann, himself not satisfied with it, revised it for performance in 1845. Again neither critics nor audience warmed to it. Yet one wonders why it is seldom performed, for it is just as poetic and dramatic as his other works. This is apparent from the very start, which apart from a couple of sections in minor keys, is bathed in sunlight. The Scherzo could be a second cousin to one by Beethoven and the Finale is bursting with energy and optimism. According to Schumann, he was in a good mood when he wrote it.