Ever since Pekka Kuusisto first casually strode onto a stage with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in 2010, the Finnish violinist has proven a refreshing iconoclast in a field of often stuffy pretension.
Here was a laid-back, gum-chewing fiddler who eschewed intensity in favor of an adventurous, folk-flavored approach to the classics, more earthy than intellectual.
Kuusisto eventually became one of the SPCO's artistic partners, but this weekend he's saying goodbye after six seasons of imaginative collaboration. He's doing so by showing off his newfound love of conducting on works both brand new and centuries old, and by putting his own stamp on an otherwise familiar staple of the violin repertoire, Ralph Vaughan Williams' "The Lark Ascending."
Friday night at St. Paul's Ordway Concert Hall, Kuusisto showed that his presence will be deeply missed. In addition to displaying a chemistry with the orchestra that always results in performances of electrifying energy, he showed on "The Lark" that there is no piece that compels him to obey convention.
Kuusisto took a work known as a perfect embodiment of the ethereal, and made it feel like a celebration of the natural world in all its flaws and beauty. He played with a moving sense of loss and longing, as if seeking transcendence but tugged down by sadness, nevertheless continuing to rise.
Yet it wasn't the only work inspired by the natural world. The evening opened with the premiere of a piece by California-based composer Cindy Cox, "Dreaming a World's Edge," inspired by photographs of places on the planet seldom seen by human visitors.
The piece often sounds like an assemblage of fragments, short phrases bubbling up from one part of the orchestra or another. High harmonics in strings and woodwinds mix with quiet cries from gongs and bowed xylophone to create something like the murmurs of distant birds. Cox has created a very involving soundscape that Kuusisto helped shape with his graceful, batonless conducting.
It's a craft that the violinist took up when recovering from an arm injury, and it's proven such a fine conduit for his artistic ideas that, last month, he was named principal guest conductor for the Helsinki Philharmonic.
His graceful, expressive way at the podium proved a treat on the concert's finale, the Third Symphony of French romantic Louise Farrenc. The orchestra made a convincing case that her music should be heard more often, eloquently bringing out the structures and spirit she shares with Beethoven, Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn.
But the lasting memory from this farewell program will be the most captivating "Lark Ascending" I may ever encounter — disarmingly vulnerable, bearing the ideal balance of hope and melancholy.
After its hypnotic, wistful conclusion, the Ordway audience insisted upon an encore, and the violinist obliged with a song by Gabriel Kahane, its affection for forests complementing the reverence for nature that permeated the program. It was a fine fit for this distinctively natural musician.
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Ordway Concert Hall, 345 Washington St., St. Paul
Tickets: $50-$10, students/children free, 651-291-1144 or thespco.org
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. firstname.lastname@example.org