BBC Symphony Orchestra / Saraste, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

The opening night of the BBC at the Barbican: the orchestra, of course, and in new uniform for a new season. Gone are the "penguin" suits, instead sober black shirts and jackets for the men - the women were never so "uniformed" - which gives a more flexible feeling for an orchestra that is more work-horse than steeped in any tradition. But the opening concert was not without tradition if Sibelius, not 50 years dead, is given his symphonic due. For this was a very Finnish occasion: a world premiere by a Finn alongside two works by the master, an offering by Mahler (who for the night masqueraded as an honorary Finn), with the whole proceedings in the hands of a Finn, the BBC's Principal Guest conductor, Jukka-Pekka Saraste.

It has become something of a cliché to comment on the extraordinary gifts of a group of Finnish composers, performing musicians and conductors who today are so dominant internationally. But if Magnus Lindberg's new Concerto for Orchestra is anything to go by, he's pulled way ahead of his other composing colleagues. Palpable was the enjoyment of the players (and the audience) for this 30-minute work, a BBC commission. In recent years, Lindberg has written a series of purely orchestral pieces and a series of concertos; this work is a triumphant combination of the two with real concertante demands on all sections of the orchestra and the occasional big solo for individual members.

Lindberg, in his mid-forties, has come of age: this is a piece on another level with extraordinary confidence, boldness of gesture and an architectural logic that makes it at once familiar. Lindberg's harmonic language is now so rich and varied, consonance, if anything, more evident than dissonance. Formally, the work is in five sections played without break. It appears like two great pillars of sound suspending a chamber music central section. These outer pillars support music of tremendous muscular energy, coloured by splashy percussion of the widest variety - metal plates, tam-tam, bongos, glockenspiels, crotales, wood blocks, Thai gongs.

Saraste's empathy for his Finnish contemporary is undoubtedly born of his understanding of Sibelius, his reading of Tapiola tenderly shaped without loss of that vital raw edge. And in Sibelius's enigmatic Sixth Symphony, he made more of it than its mongrel form suggests. In Mahler's songs from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn", it was a pleasure to hear the mezzo-soprano, Randi Stene, perform without score. Her stage presence is engaging - she made much of the dotty "Sermon to the Fishes" - despite an unevenness of voice.

Throughout the evening, the BBC orchestra - now rested from its Proms exertions - was on top form; an auspicious beginning indeed.

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