By Inge Kjemtrup

Only Pekka Kuusisto could perform one of the great mainstays of the violin repertory, the Tchaikovsky Concerto, and then, as an encore, play a Finnish folk song, getting the audience to sing along.

Kuusisto is deservedly known as a charismatic and creative performer. In 2012, I was enchanted by his performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which he spiced up with rhythmic vitality and generous handfuls of folk music. The Finnish violinist is especially at home playing and directing an orchestra—something clearly appreciated by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which recently appointed him artistic partner.

So I was ready to witness a new kick from the venerable warhorse that is the Tchaikovsky when Kuusisto stepped on the stage of London’s Royal Albert Hall on August 5 at a BBC Proms concert.

But whereas Vivaldi’s Seasons stands up to all kinds of tinkering (and is often illuminated by left-field approaches), the Tchaikovsky is a through-composed piece that needs some unity of vision. While Kuusisto brought much color and interest to individual phrases and sections, and some of the quietest dynamics I’ve ever heard, for my taste, this was not a fully filled-in picture of the concerto.

Yet I’ve rarely seen an audience so fully engaged with a performance of such a well-known piece, laughing as Kuusisto mischievously lingered on a note in the cadenza, for instance. Kuusisto’s approach of teasing out the folk roots of Tchaikovsky’s concerto was at its most persuasive in the last movement, the Allegro vivacissimo, with its boots-and-borscht tune—Kuusisto’s witty and yes, vivacious, style came to the fore.

Kudos to Thomas Dausgaard, chief conductor designate of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, who fine-tuned the BBC SSO’s dynamics and entrances to match the soloist’s very personal style.

And top marks too for Kuusisto’s encore, very much in the spirit of the Proms, where he sang and played a folk song from Karelia, and got the audience (and BBC SSO concertmaster Laura Samuel) to happily join in.

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