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Conclusion: With a captivating program, Pekka Kuusisto bids farewell to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra


Ever since Pekka Kuusisto casually took to the stage with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in 2010, the Finnish violinist has proven himself a refreshing iconoclast in a realm of often stifling pretentiousness.

He was a laid-back, gum-chewing fiddler who eschewed intensity in favor of an adventurous, folksy take on the classics, more down to earth than intellectual.

Kuusisto eventually became one of the SPCO’s artistic partners, but this weekend he’s saying goodbye after six seasons of imaginative collaboration. He does this by showing his new found love for conducting both new and age-old works, and by putting his own stamp on a staple of the violin repertoire, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending”.

Friday night at St. Paul’s Ordway Concert Hall, Kuusisto showed that his presence will be deeply missed. In addition to displaying a chemistry with the orchestra that always results in performances of electrifying energy, he showed on “The Lark” that there is no piece that forces him to obey convention.

Kuusisto took a work known as a perfect embodiment of the ethereal and made it feel like a celebration of the natural world in all its flaws and beauty. He played with a moving sense of loss and longing, as if seeking transcendence but pulled down by sadness, yet still rising.

Yet it was not the only work inspired by the natural world. The evening opened with the premiere of a piece by Californian composer Cindy Cox, “Dreaming a World’s Edge”, inspired by photographs of places on the planet rarely seen by human visitors.

The piece often sounds like an assemblage of fragments, short phrases springing from one part of the orchestra or another. High harmonics from strings and woodwinds mingle with the quiet cries of gongs and bowed xylophone to create something like the whispers of distant birds. Cox created a highly engaging soundscape that Kuusisto helped shape with his graceful, stickless direction.

It’s a profession the violinist took up while recovering from an arm injury, and it proved such a good conduit for his artistic ideas that last month he was named Principal Guest Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.

Her graceful and expressive manner on the podium proved a treat during the concert finale, the Third Symphony by the French romantic Louise Farrenc. The orchestra made a compelling case for its music to be heard more often, eloquently bringing out the structures and spirit it shares with Beethoven, Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn.

But the lasting memory of this farewell program will be the most engrossing “Lark Ascending” I can ever encounter – disarmingly vulnerable, carrying the ideal balance of hope and melancholy.

After its hypnotic and melancholic conclusion, the Ordway audience insisted on an encore, and the violinist accepted with a song by Gabriel Kahane, his affection for the forests complementing the reverence for nature that permeated the program. It was a good fit for this distinctive natural musician.

SPCO/Pekka Kuusisto
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Ordway Concert Hall, 345 Washington St., St. Paul
Tickets: $50 to $10 (students and children free); available at 651-291-1144 or thespco.org
Note: Saturday’s concert is streamed live on thespco.org

Rob Hubbard is a classical music writer from Twin Cities. wordhub@yahoo.com

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