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Oslo Philharmonic, Mäkelä online review - focus, flair and midwinter heartbreak | reviews, news & interviews

Oslo Philharmonic, Mäkelä online review - focus, flair and midwinter heartbreak

Oslo Philharmonic, Mäkelä online review - focus, flair and midwinter heartbreak

Hyperactive filming nearly ruins musical magnificence culminating in ideal Sibelius

Makelä conducting the Oslo Philharmonic in OctoberRune Bendiksen

Artists’ management Harrison Parrott has started a concert streaming platform called Virtual Circle on emusiclive.com, launched two days ago and only available as a live event - no catch-ups.

Watching its debut concert - the Oslo Philharmonic with the much-buzzed-about Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä - it struck me that it must be terribly difficult to film an orchestra effectively. Ah no, responded a friend in the know: it’s actually easy, but you have to go with how the music feels, not what it is doing

I wish someone had told the camera directors of this otherwise admirable performance. The presentation was refreshingly gimmick-free - no dry ice or blue light or what have you - but no shot or angle lasted for more than three or four seconds, even in the most rapt, concentrated moments. Some of the world’s finest musicians are being miraculously beamed into our computers from all over the globe at a time when we are feeling desperately deprived of music; this is of course something to celebrate. The sound quality can be absolutely splendid. Beyond that, though, we’re at the mercy of the director. Some get it. Some don’t. 

But the music - ah, the music. A beautifully constructed programme, opening with Kodály’s Dances of Galanta and Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane, a contemporary work - Rolf Gupta’s “Epilogue” from a larger work entitled Earth Song (the composer pictured below by Julie Nagelstad) - and the Sibelius Symphony No. 1 to close. When the camera allowed a three-second glimpse of Mäkelä in action, one could make out that he is a precise and clear conductor, using focused, economical gestures; his interpretations were paced expertly, with emotional releases held back for when they are most needed, then unleashed in full glory. The Kodály smouldered and sparkled; the Debussy glowed, with the Oslo Philharmonic’s harpist, Birgitte Volan Håvik, centre stage and weaving her tone deftly into the subtle textures all around. I don’t know whether Debussy regarded Danse sacréeas a curtain-raiser to Danse profane; somehow one suspects he preferred the latter. Rolf GuptaGupta’s Earth Song is a full evening’s work about creation, inspired by 3000-year-old Indian texts and written in 2019 for the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra’s centenary. The “Epilogue” is full of eerie, sliding effects on everything from high violins to deep trombones; a deep ambient drone in the background suggests the enduring impact of Indian classical music; and the lengthy build up of the sound’s magnitude required the careful timing that Mäkelä unerringly provided, even if the ensuing climactic moments sounded to me like a rather extreme traffic jam. I am sure the work will win friends, even if I might not yet be one of them.

The Sibelius Symphony No. 1 weaves a spell all its own: with its swirling, hostile north winds and gut-punching melodies that suggest foreboding or heartbreak, it often feels like a Finnish symphonic Winterreise. Just the piece for a midwinter night when we are facing a terrifying unknown future. The Oslo Phil’s string sections went for broke, their clarinettist (who also shone bright in the Kodäly’s opening) was peerless and Mäkelä’s mingling of rapt focus, clarity and great-heartedness proved a winning blend. Tempi were spot-on (the slow movement Schubertian footsteps in the snow rather than a funereal plod), and rhythms full of spring and substance. Has the pandemic enhanced musical interpretation, the way we listen, or both? This is perhaps a topic for discussion in better times. In these situations, every note seems to hold double the usual meaning.

Meanwhile, my full-screen mode refused to work and I missed the beginning of the Gupta piece in a futile attempt to switch browsers. (I can’t say whether the website is having problems, or Safari, or my operating system; apparently Chrome’s full-screen mode worked fine.) Not that the filming would have been more satisfying if enlarged. Woody Allen’s Annie Hall includes a joke about holidaymakers in a Catskill Mountains resort. “This food is terrible,” says one. “Yes,” says the other, “and such small portions.”

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