We had lost count of how many times the ECO has been fortunate enough to perform at the Naantali Music Festival, which takes place every June at one of Finland’s most popular summer resorts, on the beautiful Naantali/Turku archipelago – but the Festival’s founder and artistic director Arto Noras confirmed that this is our 9th visit.
Our first visit to Naantali Festival was in 1982 with Vladimir Ashkenazy as soloist and conductor, after which we were regularly reinvited. It was on our 1999 tour that we first worked with the conductor/pianist Ralf Gothoni, who was subsequently appointed Principal Conductor of the ECO and continued in that capacity until 2009. We were delighted to be invited to make a return visit for two concerts with Gothoni this summer.
The 2012 Naantali Festival programme includes a broad selection of orchestral and chamber music ranging from Marais to Penderecki and beyond. The ECO’s first programme was of music by Haydn and Schubert, including Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante with four excellent Finnish soloists: Elina Vahala, Samuli Peltonen, Paula Malmivaara and Jussi Sarkka. Our second concert comprised Elgar’s Serenade, Philip Glass’ first Piano Concerto (Ralf Gothoni directing from the keyboard) and Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony (again with stunning soloists, Mari Palo and Nicholas Soderlund). The 15th century Naantali Church provides a picturesque venue and this year looks even more stunning than before, following recent renovations.
The Orchestra flew to Helsinki on 4 June and arrived at Naantali Spa Hotel after a smooth two hour bus ride along the forest-fringed, almost traffic-free motorway. There was no rehearsal that evening so we were able to take a walk along the picturesque coastal path into Naantali’s old town and enjoy one of the many restaurants overlooking the harbour. The sun eventually set around 11pm but the water continued to sparkle in the ensuing twilight. Sleeping through the night here is a challenge for some of us, as light invariably creeps around the curtains to suggest that it is not really night-time at all….
The next day was a busy one, with rehearsals for the Shostakovich Symphony as well as for the first concert of Haydn and Schubert. Our London Shostakovich rehearsal had been for strings only, but the symphony now really began to take shape with the added percussion and two vocal soloists contributing to the emotion, drama and dark beauty of the music. For a few it brought back memories of performing this symphony in the early 1980s conducted by Rostropovich at Aldeburgh Festival, and we also recalled – before the time of any current ECO players – an even earlier Aldeburgh performance, the symphony’s first ever performance in the West, conducted by Benjamin Britten.
Our first concert was also the opening night of the 2012 Festival. Finnish audiences are immaculately dressed and very well behaved, and this one hung onto every note. Haydn’s Symphony No.49, ‘La Passione’, was followed by his sparkling Sinfonia Concertante for solo violin, cello, oboe, bassoon and orchestra in which the soloists’ dialogue is often quasi-operatic.