Audiences could be forgiven if guest conductors start to blur together after a while. For the space of two hours (or so it seems to us from our seat in the auditorium), our beloved NAC Orchestra is in the hands of a visitor from afar who, as often as not, doesn’t say a word and spends most of the evening with his back to us.
But sometimes those visitors manage to make an impression. And sometimes they return often enough that we should start to notice, remember their names and styles, and look forward to their next visit. In only two years, after only two previous visits to Ottawa, I’ve begun putting an asterisk next to John Storgårds’ name. That’s one reason I’m looking forward to the NAC Orchestra’s concerts January 8 and 9 under his baton.
Storgårds has just been named Principal Guest Conductor of the NAC Orchestra. He is the Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, which means that at 51 he is a leader among the youngish generation of Finnish conductors. There are a lot of them for such a small country. (Hannu Lintu is another whose visits we’ve learned to anticipate.) And Storgårds is a working-class hero among symphonic players, because not too long ago he was one of them: as a young violinist he was concertmaster of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. This is of more than anecdotal interest. His empathy for the musicians, the colleague-to-colleague dynamic of his relations with them, is evident wherever he conducts. There’s nothing haughty about him.
Quite the contrary. He is a shy man, tentative when he speaks, as you’ll see if you stay after these concerts for my onstage chats with him. But he cares deeply for the music, for its constant renewal — few conductors anywhere have performed and recorded as much newly-composed repertoire as Storgårds has — and for its practitioners. There’s an endearing mismatch between his look and his effect: He’s a stocky guy whose baton seems to make only broad gestures, but the orchestra responds with playing of exquisite tension and detail. He conducted Sibelius’ Third Symphony here in 2013 as if it were a mournful secret whispered between friends. It was haunting.
On this third visit he’ll lead the orchestra in a brand-new bassoon concerto by the American composer Marc Neikrug, co-commissioned by the NAC Orchestra and performed by our own Christopher Millard, as well as a stirring Romantic symphony by Robert Schumann. It’s the kind of program Storgårds likes, a combination of ancient virtues and new directions. It’s the kind of concert we’re coming to expect from him.