Northern Exposure

Today, as children of the modern, we still experience the loneliness of individualism, the helplessness of being one among billions, and the desire to be significant, respected.

Sibelius was no different. Writing in the high modern period of the early 1900s, when great artists each sought their own style, he steadfastly defined one path in music which remains admired today by fans, musicians and scholars alike.

New worlds were opened when he unveiled the intellectual monolith of the Fourth Symphony, a work whose austerity and ingenuity still drops jaws today. His glorious Second Symphony remains a concert favourite, a legacy of Romantic magnificence and one symbol of Sibelius’s deeply human heart.

The two symphonies form indispensible chapters in an epic symphonic journey that The Philharmonic Orchestra is undertaking. Can intellectualism marry emotionalism? For the answer, follow The Philharmonic Orchestra into the cosmic core of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony, then join them in celebration of the irrepressible human spirit of his Second Symphony.

– Nov 2007

In 2007, the 50th anniversary of Sibelius’s passing, I received an invitation from Dr Chang Touliang, a good old friend in the music circles – yeah, the one who writes for the papers – to pen words for the upcoming Sibelius symphony cycle by The Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Lim Yau.

It was an honour I could not refuse, though it would be a great challenge. For all. Somewhat shockingly, this was to be only Singapore’s first complete Sibelius cycle – no one, not even the SSO, has ever done it. (They tend to be preoccupied with Mahler these days, actually any days – to my chagrin). The fact that Lim Yau would lead it also meant a lot to me, for he is a conductor I greatly respect. For someone like him, usually associated with choral and dramatic works, to come out of the blue to conduct all the seven symphonies, was as impressive as it was fearsome.

I contributed a total of 3 sets of programme notes and two forwards/blurbs for the 3 concerts, one of which is above (for the 2nd concert featuring Symphonies Nos. 2 & 4, 30 Mar 2008). As the programme notes are some of the most challenging things I’ve ever written about Sibelius, I will begin republishing them here for keeps.

In particular, the challenge was for me to somehow “explain” two (or three symphonies) “together” in the context of Sibelius. Now, for the Fifth to Seventh Symphonies, that’s a fairly well-argued topic since he wrote them almost simultaenously, but to attempt to relate the First and Third, and worse, the two polar opposites of the Second and Fourth, was quite a fascinating terror…

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Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

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