The hippest four minutes of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra season came Friday night at Belk Theater between 8:47 and 8:51 p.m.
Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto had just finished countryman Jean Sibelius’ only concerto, playing with gentle introspection as the CSO blew up a storm around him. Now he returned for his encore. As principal bassist Kurt Riecken came forward, Kuusisto struck up a Finnish folk tune called (if I understood rightly) “Suojelusenkeli,” or “Guardian Angel.”
Riecken laid down a softly repeated figure beneath the fiddle melody, and Kuusisto went to work. He bobbed merrily as he improvised flights of fancy. He whistled. He cut loose with jazzy riffs. He strummed and plucked the violin like a ukulele. Everyone left for intermission with the same huge smile Kuusisto wore at the end, and a guy walking past me up the aisle told his date, “I have a new favorite fiddler.”
The concert had begun with fireworks: Mikhail Glinka’s overture to the opera “Ruslan and Lyudmila,” a fizzing whirl of melodies that music director Christopher Warren-Green rightly served up as first cousin to Rossini. (Glinka admired Italian composers of his generation.)
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It ended in the same explosive way, with Peter Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2. Warren-Green gave the broad melodies space when they needed it, despite suspect first-movement intonation during a few of the solos; he was also careful to move things forward when the composer got his bulldog jaws locked on one tune and tossed it back and forth for half a movement.
Yet Kuusisto stood out. He committed at every moment to Sibelius’ music, whether spinning a thread of tone in his opening bars or turning to the orchestra with a smile between solos, absorbing energy for his next entrance. This concerto has been described as “chilly” or “remote,” but the right adjective Friday was “mysterious.”
Kuusisto consistently draws you in with his playing, as if he’s trying to share a secret. He’s a specialist in new music, and the secret (of course) is that all music was new at some point. The best players can make a concerto from 1905 sound as if it still is.
You could have thought of this concert as a mini-history of late Czarist Russia. Glinka became the first Russian composer to gain recognition in his country around 1835, writing his first opera, “A Life for the Tsar.” Tchaikovsky, who died in 1893, remains his homeland’s most internationally beloved musical hero.
Sibelius was born 150 years ago this December and grew up in a Finland controlled by Russia as an “autonomous Grand Duchy” until he was 52. He didn’t think of himself as Russian and had written the anthem “Finlandia” six years before this concerto to inspire nationalist feeling. But ministers of the czar would have disagreed with him.
Each of these pieces spoke intriguingly of a world foreign to Westerners, from the Oriental fantasy of Glinka’s opera to the whirling Ukrainian songs in Tchaikovsky’s symphony (called “Little Russian” because Ukraine was then known as “Little Russia”). But a not-so-simple Finnish folk song spoke loudest of all.
Charlotte Symphony Orchestra
The CSO performs Peter Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony, the overture to Mikhail Glinka’s “Ruslan and Lyudmila” and Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. Pekka Kuusisto is the soloist, Christopher Warren-Green the conductor.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or charlottesymphony.org.