Thursday, September 15, 2011

Lahti Sibelius Festival 2011 – Coda

Sibelius monument, Helsinki
Hearing Sibelius’s seven symphonies and  violin concerto over just three nights, I was afraid that since I didn’t have much time to absorb each work, the symphonies might all blur together. Thankfully, each Sibelius symphony is so unique that it never happened. Here are some final musings about my three days and one morning with Janne. 

The second night of the festival featured Symphonies Nos. 3, 4 and the Violin Concerto with Elina Vähälä as soloist. Her full-blooded, fearless attack, especially in the murderous first movement cadenza, was outstanding.  The Third Symphony was a model of crisp, clear classical style and Okko Kamu’s interpretation was lean and lithe. But it was the Fourth Symphony that lingered and actually had me tossing and turning that night, the music running through my head in my semi-conscious state. The performance built tension, released it, and then built it all over again. There are no easy resolutions in the Fourth Symphony, and in some ways that speaks of Sibelius too. Is the Fourth Sibelius in microcosm? Perhaps. The low strings had a primordial growl, while the high strings soared with a silvery glow that wasn’t pretty (I don’t think “pretty” was Sibelius’s intention) but cut like a raw wind.

The final full day of the festival opened with Heini Kärrkäinen playing Sibelius’s piano music in the acoustically ideal Kalevi Aho Hall. The hall is another one of those Lahti miracles. Originally a shirt factory, the building’s nondescript exterior belies the  state-of-the-art acoustic interior designed by Russell Johnson. It was Johnson’s gift to the city. I’m still not completely sold on Sibelius’s piano music, but Kärrkäinen’s robust, muscular performance made the case forcefully.

In a public pre-concert chat before the final orchestral concert, Okko Kamu said his interpretation of the music is based solely on what appears in the score. And when you hear Kamu conduct these works, you appreciate his approach. Any liberties taken would be exposed by the exquisitely transparent acoustic of Sibelius Hall. So a performance either stands or it doesn’t. The Fifth Symphony’s sometimes tricky transitions were perfectly executed, the finale soared magnificently, and those weird final chords were hair-raising. The Seventh also benefited from much of what made the Fifth so strong—transitions were deftly handled and fluidly led to a grand finale.

I have saved the Sixth for last. I’ve never heard the work played better. Kamu referred to the symphony’s heavenly opening string passages as “Palestrina,” and he was on the mark. The Lahti strings played it with the delicacy of spun silk.

Lahti Symphony Orchestra, photo by Markus Henttonen

 Yet there was so much more. A post-concert reception honoring BIS recordings’ CEO, Robert von Bahr, on the completion of the epic 13-volume Sibelius Edition enabled me to mingle with the Sibelius elite. There were chats with conductors Kamu and Neeme Jarvi and, at my table, I got the inside story of the Lahti Symphony from trombonist Vesa Lehtinen. Members of the Sibelius family were also there, as were Sibelius scholar Andrew Barnett and pianist Folke Gräsbeck. It was truly a gathering of “Sibeliusratti.”

The music finally ended the next morning with a chamber concert where Kamu set down his baton and picked up his violin in a program that featured, among other works, the Andante festivo and String Quartet in D minor, “Voces intimae”—fitting music for a September 11th morning. It was the end of one of my greatest musical experiences and the start of hearing Sibelius in a whole new way.

Details of the 2012 festival have already been announced. The theme is “Sibelius—Patriot and Mystic” and will feature the Scènes Historiques, Press Celebrations Music and the tone poem Tapiola. The renowned YL Male Voice Choir will join the orchestra in the choral works. Check out the Lahti Symphony website for more details. 

A view across the bay on the morning of September 11, 2011, photo by Craig Zeichner

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