Updated: July 28, 2013 8:38PM
Former Grant Park Music Festival general and artistic director James W. Palermo was one heck of a talent scout. From pianist Valentina Lisitsa, now an internationally known recording (and YouTube) artist to cellist Alban Gerhardt to the festival’s artistic leadership of Carlos Kalmar as principal conductor and Christopher Bell as chorus director, Palermo paid little mind to geographic origins or bases or to pitches from high-end managers. He nabbed young performers with great careers ahead of them early and made them feel Chicago’s lakefront was home.
One of these Palermo picks, Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu, has been an audience and orchestra favorite since his debut nine years ago; he returns most seasons, often with the rare reward of two programs. Wednesday he led a Shostakovich Fifth that received high marks from listeners, and Friday evening he brought vividly to life lesser-played — and in one case, just lesser — works from Finland and Russia, as well as a repertoire staple with a remarkable soloist, also boosted by Palermo several years ago, violinist Karen Gomyo.
Lintu’s programs are always interesting and usually feature at least one work from his Nordic homeland. It should be said, though, that he must be especially effective in rehearsal, as his concert gestures have become increasingly overbroad, even flailing, which can make for a dramatic view at the outdoor Pritzker Pavilion but a distracting one as well.
Nevertheless, he gets results and “Pohjola’s Daughter,” a touching 1906 musical setting of ancient Finnish mythology by Sibelius, his Op. 49, was wholly enchanting in its belated Grant Park debut. Characters, competing and complementary themes and that unique Sibelius sound world were realized by Lintu and the top-flight orchestra in full idiom. Programming this tone poem proved additionally intelligent as it primed both players and listeners for the post-intermission 1903-05 D Minor Violin Concerto, Op. 49, by the same composer and moved that popular work out of the warhorse stable. To hear just how Finnish this piece can be, dark wind sounds, connections between the low instruments across sections, odd rhythms, turned it — or turned it back? — into a different work.
Gomyo, 30, was a marvel in her own right. Her stage movements are limited but her presence is intense. Her strong physical playing combined a powerful technique — she seems to be digging into the bridge of her Stradivarius at times — with full sympathy of the long lines of the piece. She and Lintu appeared to be in full accord in this bringing together of ice and fire with the movement of both dark and light musical clouds above them. (A highly regarded string player who attended Juilliard with Gomyo was sitting in my row and answered strongly in the affirmative when I asked if the Tokyo-born soloist had always had this total sense of command.)
In between came a work of late Russian Romanticism, Alexander Glazunov’s 1893 E-Flat Major Fourth Symphony, Op. 48, almost generic, except, again, for intriguing wind writing and playing and, in this case, a fetching little scherzo movement. Stalwart English horn Judith Kulb set the tone for her colleagues, as principal cello Walter Haman did with his beautiful opening solo in the earlier tone poem. Lintu made as great a case as could be made for this half-hour work, which seems to contain at least five possible, but unachieved, endings before it does close.
Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).