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Guest conductor Sakari Oramo brings clarity to a diffuse CSO program

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◆ 8 p.m. Saturday

◆ Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

◆ Tickets, $30-$212

◆ (312) 294-3000;

Updated: May 7, 2013 6:09AM

Finland, a nation of 5.3 million people, has to have one of the highest per capita representations of bass vocalists, classical composers and orchestra conductors. The podium pedagogue Jorma Panula has trained Esa-Pekka Salonen, Osmo Vanska and Mikko Franck, among many others, at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy. He seems to put no single stamp on his students, although they all exhibit stamina and have affinities for music of their homeland and its Nordic neighbors.

Sakari Oramo, 47, chief conductor of Stockholm’s Royal Philharmonic and due to take over the BBC Symphony next season, was a substitute with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra two years ago. He is making his scheduled subscription concerts debut here this week with two lesser played works from Russia and Denmark and a first performance of music by a rising Australian composer.

Thursday at Symphony Center, Oramo brought clarity to pieces that can sound diffuse, and care and synchronization to a piano concerto that can be a runaway showpiece for its soloist. In the case of the concerto, Prokofiev’s C Major Third, which had its world premiere with the composer playing right here with Frederick Stock and the CSO in 1921, Oramo had a performer technically expert and musically thoughtful.

At 26, Yuja Wang is a phenom but also when fully engaged mature beyond her years in thinking and playing a piece through from beginning to end. Yes, she can offer runs and octaves that would justify slo-mo video analysis, and yes, she can get sound out of the instrument that could probably be heard across Michigan Avenue. But she also makes a case for this tricky, percussive work as music, much as the late Van Cliburn did in his historic 1960 CSO recording. The audience had its collective eyes on her moves as if watching a Federer-Nadal tennis match. Wang also gave them soul and melody as required, but despite repeated curtain calls, there was no encore Thursday night.

The Prokofiev hadn’t been played downtown in 22 years, though Lang Lang ran through it at Ravinia in 2009. But it’s certainly been a part of the repertoire from its inception. Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony, an exact contemporary, has never achieved that place outside the far north of Europe, even despite the advocacy of the American legend Leonard Bernstein. It’s a highly distinctive work, as are all six of Nielsen’s works in the genre, but that distinctiveness adds up to a totality for many fewer listeners than that of Finland’s parallel artist, Sibelius. There is the eerie landscape, the unusual pairings and sonorities, the much-discussed tension and alternation of “energy” and “rest”; even in this performance, one of the best and most devoted I’ve heard live, the personal language remains hermetic, often thick, and for this listener, unconvincing, with the two-movement division awkward and unbalanced.

Kudos, though, to clarinet John Bruce Yeh in both this and the Prokofiev for making his solos and their contexts sing. And to Cynthia Yeh (no relation) for her command of that strange snare drum part, giving it just the right degree of aggression. Newly appointed principal timpanist David Herbert, sitting in this month before moving here from the San Francisco Symphony in July, gave a tantalizing taste of what we have in store with this key position filled.

Violist-composer Brett Dean’s “Amphitheatre, Scene for Orchestra” (2000), which has a late Sibelian concentration, shows its greatest originality in its poignant dissipation at the end of its succinct 11 minutes.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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