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You know the Kennedy Center is hosting its annual international festival when strange, overpriced new tchotchkes begin to appear in its gift shops. Right now the center is selling sleekly designed toys made of wood veneer and polyurethane—-the kind that are too nice for kids to actually play with—-so it would seem that this year’s theme is Scandinavia. Or as the Kennedy Center bills it, “Nordic Cool.”

Sweden got the spotlight early, with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic getting to open the festival last week. But if there’s any country that deserves to be the region’s classical ambassador, it’s Finland, a place we normally associate with… well not much, other than reindeer and mud baths. Oh wait—-that’s Iceland. Just reindeer, then.

As far as composers go, it’s a country we associate with just one guy, Jean Sibelius, Finland’s favorite son who barely managed to not drink himself to death before introducing the world to its music. Appropriately, the National Symphony’s all-Finnish program this weekend is bookended by two Sibelius works, his tone poem Night Ride and Sunrise and his Seventh Symphony. More interesting, though, is what’s sandwiched in between: two 21st century works, by Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho, and the dynamite soloist who performs the first, violinist Pekka Kuusisto.

NSO audiences may remember Lindberg from when fellow Finn Susanna Mälkki led the orchestra in a surprisingly old fashioned-sounding work, 2002’s Parada. This piece, his violin concerto, is a bit less classical and more abstract. However Lindberg remains a relatively accessible contemporary composer, one who is not entirely atonal and adheres to a few traditional conventions like having discernible melodies, and whom I like a lot.

Lindberg also demands a scary level of talent to play. His concerto shifts rapidly between chords, trills, harmonics, spiccato, pizzicato, and hacking away with the bow, all of which Kuusisto delivers handily despite appearing lost in his thoughts, as if distracted by the fact that he’s also playing the violin. Kuusisto looks like a high school drama club stage tech with ADD: wearing a capelike shawl over a black T-shirt and pajama pants, weaving his head around like Stevie Wonder, he looks at everything around him except the orchestra, conductor, or his own instrument, yet somehow pulls it all off. On Thursday, he encored with “Devil’s Polska” by Samuel Rinda-Nickola, based on the Kalevala, which Kuusisto helpfully explained as “that Finnish mythological… thing.” It’s a fun tune that wouldn’t sound out of place in an Appalachian fiddle contest, and the crowd seemed to enjoy it a lot more than the Lindberg concerto.

Saariaho’s Orion is another nice inclusion: a work by a composer who is both still alive and a woman, both rarities in orchestral programming. Unfortunately, and especially following the Lindberg concerto, it tests one’s patience with a droning, wall of sound like a half-hour-long Mogwai song. Saariaho is especially fond of obscure percussion and throws in a host of chimes, gongs, tubular bells, thundersticks, and God knows what else, which the orchestra stumbled through in a confusing manner.

The NSO and director Christoph Eschenbach appeared most in their element for the Sibelius pieces. In particular, it was the Seventh Symphony (his last, because Sibelius went nuts and burned his eighth) that shined. Sibelius’ slow tempo and spare themes gave Eschenbach and the orchestra lots of room to really dig into each note. For a Finland showcase, the two works featured are noticeably lacking in the Finnish nationalism for which Sibelius was known; they are united mostly by their deeply depressive mood and total abandonment of sonata form. But if there’s anything the man loved more than Finland, it was booze, and one can imagine the benders that must have gone into writing these.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. on Friday, March 1 and Saturday, March 2 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $10 – $85. (800) 444-1324.

Photo: Sonja Werner