Epic 'Kullervo' brings bracing gust of icy Nordic air to Grant Park

July 30, 2011

by John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

"Kullervo" represents a side of Jean Sibelius' output few American listeners know. Completed in 1892 and based on the Finnish mythology known as the Kalevala (a source of inspiration throughout his life), this early, five-movement work is less a symphony than a series of symphonic poems, with a cantata embedded in the middle. Because Sibelius forbade performances during his lifetime, the piece had to wait until 1958, the year after his death, to receive its premiere.

"Kullervo" has gained traction outside its native land over the last couple of decades, but, unless I am mistaken, Chicagoans had to wait until Friday night to experience it for the first time "live" in the city. The talented Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu returned to the Grant Park Music Festival to lead the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus, and vocal soloists, in a committed, absolutely riveting performance. The program (repeated on Saturday) was typical of the adventuresome undertakings Grant Park brings off better than just about any festival around.

"Kullervo" practically cries out to be performed at a big outdoor classical venue. Its 73 minutes are cast on an epic scale, with stirring choruses and dramatic vocal solos supported by evocative orchestral writing depicting crucial moments in the life of the tragic hero, Kullervo. One's experience of "Kullervo" on recordings suggests that Finnish conductors are more closely attuned to the Sibelius idiom than others, and so it was here. Despite limited rehearsal time, Lintu galvanized the orchestra and chorus (prepared by director Christopher Bell) to deliver one of the finest performances the Grant Park public has heard of anything, this or any other season.

His tempos were well chosen and he was fully invested in the spirit of the work, beginning with an Introduction alive to its tragic portents and mythic sweep. His direction proved always decisive but was pliant enough to bring out the poetry of the nature-music of the soprano's lament in the central section, "Kullervo and His Sister." The orchestral playing was remarkably strong throughout – remarkable because the score is riddled with enough technical and musical difficulties to challenge the very best of orchestras. One would have thought this was a repertory piece for the Grant Parkers, rather than a work they had seen for the first time only last week.

Playing brother and sister, the real-life brother and sister team of Finnish soprano Johanna Rusanen and baritone Ville Rusanen kept the dramatic intensity crackling in their tense exchanges, with the incisive men's voices of the Grant Park Chorus lending additional urgency. I'm no expert in Finnish diction but I was amazed by how convincingly the choristers wrapped their tongues around the Finnish text.

The soprano sang with amplitude and power, but also beautiful sound; the baritone matched her in vocal command, though he could have been more woefully expressive. The lament for Kullervo's death was shattering in its somber gravitas, whose effect not even wailing sirens from nearby Michigan Avenue could dispel. Lintu, who made his Grant Park debut in 2004, merits an annual berth on the festival's roster.

Sergei Rachmaninov's brief 1902 cantata, "Vesna" ("Spring"), made a welcome curtain-raiser. The Russian composer found his lyrical voice in this setting of an odd Russian text in which a husband bent on killing his adulterous wife is stayed from carrying out his murderous plan by the ecstatic arrival of spring.

A comparison with the performance heard several weeks ago at Ravinia under James Conlon's direction revealed trade-offs. Lintu was rather more incisive and his chorus better focused than Conlon's Milwaukee Symphony voices. Both soloists sang well, but Conlon's baritone, Vasily Ladyuk, with his deeper, darker, more authentically Slavic sound, had the edge over Lintu's Ville Rusanen.