Review: Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu returns to Grant Park in style

July 27, 2013

By John von Rhein, The Chicago Tribune

A goodly part of the Grant Park Music Festival's mission statement has to do with providing debuts for talented young conductors and soloists who are kicking up buzz outside Chicago and whose developing careers can only benefit from this level of exposure.

But the festival also makes it a point to bring back on a regular basis a select number of artists who have found favor with the audience as well as the musicians of the Grant Park Orchestra. Pianist Valentina Lisitsa is one such artist and conductor Hannu Lintu is another. Indeed, ever since the 45-year-old Finnish conductor's Grant Park festival debut in 2004, his appearances have been among the most eagerly awaited rites of summer music in the city.

I regretted missing his concert here on Wednesday but found the program he directed Friday evening at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion consistent with previous successes. On a cool night at Millennium Park, he had the Grant Parkers playing an interesting mix of familiar and unfamiliar music like the first-class orchestra it has become.

The program, which is scheduled to be repeated on Saturday night, brought a hefty helping of music by Lintu's great Finnish countryman, Jean Sibelius, including the popular Violin Concerto along with the belated Grant Park premiere of "Pohjola's Daughter."

The latter tone poem, from 1906, is among Sibelius' most richly scored orchestral pieces. Lintu, who will become chief conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra this fall, brought out its majestic sweep and abundant colorings with complete idiomatic understanding. The chilly breezes that swirled around the park added a touch of naturalistic realism to the mighty brass chords and pulsing strings.

The Sibelius concerto brought another welcome return, that of violinist Karen Gomyo, following up on the success of her Grant Park debut in 2009. Gomyo, who is 31, was born in Tokyo, and grew up in Montreal and New York, where she studied with the great pedagogue Dorothy DeLay at the Juilliard School. Her area debut was on Ravinia's Rising Stars series in 2000.

Her prodigious technique includes a commanding bow arm that succeeded in drawing sounds throaty and sweet from her Stradivarius. Her surging, finely modulated tone proved altogether apt for Sibelius. She etched the dance rhythms with a whiplash incisiveness reinforced by the closely attentive backing of Lintu and the orchestra,and her free treatment of rhythm enhanced the chill poetry at the heart of the meditative slow movement. She maintained her sangfroid through even the most treacherous bravura writing.

Tucked between the two Sibelius scores was a genuine novelty, Alexander Glazunov's Symphony No. 4 (1893). The Russian composer's music was once popular but has pretty much faded from view. But the symphony is a perfectly charming example of Russian romanticism in full flower, tuneful and tightly crafted, with a particularly appealing Scherzo in the middle. It's no masterpiece – there's little here that Rachmaninov didn't do better – but it is nice to learn more about the musical world out of which the latter composer sprang.

An obvious true believer, Lintu made the best possible case for the symphony's being better known, drawing a warm, flowing and sensibly paced account from the orchestra. Judith Kulb's dulcet English horn solo established the Russian Romantic sensibility that pervades the entire work. This is just the sort of esoteric but worthwhile rarity Grant Park should be giving its audience and fortunately does. I, for one, am eager to hear what Lintu will be bringing to the festival next season.

Twitter @jvonrhein