On December 9, 2002, a rainy, snowy all-around gloomy day, I headed to Symphony Center via the North Shore Shuttle which I boarded at the Winnetka Covenant Church. My guest and I arrived stress-free, in time for the pre-concert lecture with Carl Grapentine in which he highlighted special moments in the three works we were about to hear.
This program featured Dalia Stasevska in her debut leading the CSO, one of 11 orchestras she will be leading around the country. You can still see this remarkable program performed Dec. 8-10, which features an enlarged orchestration of the original version of Birds of Paradise for strings. “It’s a beautiful piece,” Stasevska said. “She composes this amazing forest of sounds, and it’s very imaginative. You hear this imitation of birds, but it’s not really an imitation of birds. It’s a little bit like Bartók writing folk music. It’s kind of his idea of folk music. It’s the same thing with Andrea. It’s kind of her idea of this magical dream with birds.”
The program included Tchaikovsky’s well-known Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn, CSO Artist-in-Residence, as soloist. Stasevska has never collaborated with the violinist, but the two recently met for coffee in Helsinki so they could get acquainted. “For me,” the conductor said, “it’s a dream come true to work with her.” Seeing the two together on stage was beautiful.
Concluding the program was Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943). “I wanted to come with something that is very dear to me,” she said. “Bartók has been always been a great source of inspiration, and I love this piece.”
The work was completed two years before the composer’s death, and Stasevska sees it as a kind of valedictory celebration in which he wanted to give each section of the orchestra something spectacular to play. “It’s almost like a retrospective of all things that matter to him, that he was passionate about,” she said. “It’s such a complex piece and much more than just a showcase. You really need to think about the drama there, and all the many levels. It’s also a phenomenal piece to perform together, and I can imagine it will be just spectacular with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.”
Stasevska was born in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 1984, when that country was under the control of the Soviet Union, and moved with her family to Finland when she was 5. Her love of classical music was cemented when she was 12 or 13 and heard a recording of Madama Butterfly that “exploded” her mind. “What is this amazing composition and this orchestral sound and the singers?” she recalled. That experience ignited a drive to play in youth orchestras as a violinist and to study the scores of Beethoven symphonies, trying to play all the parts.
She went on to the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki as violin and viola major. But her studies took a detour when she happened to substitute in a student orchestra that played for a conducting class. She was stunned to see a female student on the podium: Eva Ollikainen, now chief conductor and artistic director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. She was one of the first voices in the Classical music world to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she has also taken an active role in the region by raising funds and driving to the frontlines to deliver aid in person.
While most of her work is with symphony orchestras, Stasevska considers herself to be a passionate opera conductor in part because of her transformative encounter with Madama Butterfly. She tries to book one or two opera productions a year, occasions that allow to her to stay in one place for multiple weeks and really engage with a group of singers and musicians. This coming summer, she is set to make her debut at the Glyndebourne Festival, leading a production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the future, she would like to be a music director at an opera company. “One day I hope I will,” she said. “But it’s not yet the time.”
Everything was brighter when we entered Symphony Center. The feeling was upbeat with holiday decorations and the orchestra and the audience in holiday garb.
As the program began the music had the feel of a walk through the woods. The feeling return with the final piece. While the first piece is the new work of a young woman (Tarrodi Birds of Paradise), the final piece was the last piece written by an older man (“Concerto for Orchestra” by Bela Bartok).
For me, however, it was the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto that carried me away. As a young child I used to listen repeatedly to an album in our home possibly TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D major op. 35 / Heifetz · Reiner · Chicago Symphony Orchestra
It moved me every time I heard it. Now there were two amazing women in charge of the orchestra, and again this work did its magic. With conductor Dalia Stasevska (in her debut with the CSO) and violinist Hillary Hahn (the reigning queen of the violin) each note was beautiful. Hahn’s individual interpretations were nuanced and exquisite from very quiet high notes to expansive and energetic passages, it was thrilling to see these two women in action and powerful to watch bow and baton in choreography with one another.
The last work was “Concerto for Orchestra” by Bela Bartok which echoed to the first piece in the bird sounds. This was the perfect vehicle for Stasevska gracefully taking charge of the orchestra, as the title suggests, the entire orchestra. The dance music of the finale was brilliant and lively and brought the audience to its feet with great enthusiasm. This was a concert to remember. As Stasevska shares her skills throughout the states, it is enriching to experience this woman’s skills.
Stasevska generously answered questions from Splash Magazines Worldwide:
What are the ways you prepare yourself to debut with the 11 major orchestras you are leading this year?
Nothing special to be honest. I prepare for every single engagement the same way: thorough preparation of music and be yourself on stage + enjoy great music making with great colleagues.
Is there anyone in your family who is also musical?
I have two little brothers who are musicians. Otherwise, I come from non-musical family. My parents though are painters.
Once you realized how interested you were in music did you have any problems finding teachers?
It’s something that I didn’t really make a choice. When you’re a kid and start studying in conservatoire – teacher is assigned by the school. On the other hand when I studied in university from age 17, I of course could choose teachers and I was very lucky to be able to study conducting with two incredible teachers (Jorma Panula and Leif Segerstam).
If you plan to attend a Friday afternoon concert, note that with the popular North Shore Shuttle, you can avoid the stress of driving downtown and instead sit back, relax and enjoy the company of other Chicago Symphony Orchestra patrons. The shuttle departs from Winnetka at 11 a.m., allowing you to arrive early enough for either the preconcert conversation or a chance to get lunch downtown before the performance.
Pickup location: Winnetka Covenant Church, located at 1200 Hibbard Road
Boarding time: 10:45 a.m.
Departure time: 11:00 a.m.
Cost: $25 per person
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