The ECO’s visits to the medieval church on the hill just behind the colourful wooden shore front restaurants and bars of Naantali have, over many years, produced some extraordinarily memorable concerts.
It was in Naantali in the late 1990s that the festival’s visionary director, the cellist Arto Noras, had the inspiration of introducing the ECO to the great Finnish pianist and conductor Ralf Gothoni. Very soon afterwards, as a result of the relationship begun in Naantali, Ralf became the orchestra’s principal conductor, a post he held for ten years.
It was, therefore, an enormous pleasure for the orchestra to be reunited with Ralf for two concerts in this year’s Naantali Music Festival. The first concert on Tuesday, the festival’s opening night, featured two composers with whom Ralf has a special affinity; Haydn and Schubert.
The following evening, Wednesday, the Naantali church was as full as I have ever seen it – a wonderful testament to Arto Noras’ flair for adventurous and unusual programming. The first half of the concert started with a lyrical performance of Elgar’s Serenade for Strings. Ralf then directed Philip Glass’ ‘Tirol Concerto’ for piano from the keyboard, before delivering the main item of the evening, Shostakovitch’s Symphony No 14.
This Shostakovitch symphony is a late work, written in 1969, while the composer was in a Moscow hospital fearing he was about to die. It is a song cycle of poems about unnatural or premature death. Scored for soprano and bass soloists, strings and percussion, the work is a virtuoso exploration of the sonorities and textures of a string orchestra. The work reveals Shostakovitch as a composer willing to embrace many new compositional techniques, which can be interpreted as a sign of optimism, given that he believed he was living his last days.
Ralf has made Shostakovitch 14 one of his signature works since conducting it for the first time with the ECO in London in 2000, and his interpretation has evolved into one of profound musical insight. Ralf has said that for him it is highly significant that this symphony is dedicated to Benjamin Britten, the composer with whom the ECO had an extremely close relationship. It was Britten who conducted the ECO in the symphony’s first performance in the west, at the 1970 Aldeburgh Festival. Ralf feels that this connection somehow lives on, despite the orchestra now being comprised of a completely new generation of players.
For the musicians, Shostakovitch 14 is one of those pieces that presents a considerable technical and musical challenge and our principal cello joked as we were about to go on the platform that it sometimes feels like you’re about to do battle! And what an exhilarating battle it was. Judging by the audience response and the buzz in the waterfront bars afterwards, the Naantali/Gothoni/ ECO chemistry has again produced a performance to treasure.