Confessions of a Sibelius Champion

“Daddy, why do you like Sibelius so much?”

A month ago, my daughter, now age 10, asked me this simple question. Pause. I didn’t really know how to answer her. In truth if anyone older asked me, it would’ve been equally difficult to explain. And those of you who made the little mistake of asking me, I must let you know that it embarrasses me to go beyond five sentences to explain it. (I’ll buy a meal for those whom I subjected more than 10 sentences).

I suppose it would be just as difficult for any fan to explain exactly why he/she likes a certain composer. Sibelius himself reputedly avoided talking about his music, and even less so his compositional processes. I think essentially, like him, I would prefer to let the music speak for itself.

There are many other composers whose music I love – J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Dvořák, etc. But I only have this special relationship with Sibelius. I live over 9200 kilometres from Helsinki, from Sibelius, so to speak. I live in a tropical, Asian country – in terms of race, culture, language, climate, about as remote as it can be in relation to a Nordic country. Sometimes it seems a bit strange how this happened. Sometimes I can’t understand how come, and a part of me wants to ask, “Why was I chosen to do this?”

I have many times imagined what I would do and how I would feel when I finally reach Ainola. I have seen many photographs on the internet of Sibelius’ simple, bronze green grave. Soon I shall visit it. It will be the closest I will ever be to “meeting” him.

Many thoughts go through my head, and I find that finally, what I would say to him amounts to something emotionally closer to a confession than anything else.

Marshall Cavendish Great Composers Series – Sibelius (cassette version)

Awakening
I first truly awakened to Sibelius around 1990 or 1991 when I was aged around 18. I don’t remember exactly when, but I remember exactly how. Back then, I was following the fortnightly Marshall Cavendish series of “Great Composer” magazines, each came with a CD of the featured composer’s signature works (Right: the cassette version, which I bought off a second-hand store recently). I bought practically every issue, and I still have the magazines, although I have replaced most of the CDs with better recordings.

The blue-themed Sibelius issue came with a CD recording of Finlandia (naturally) and the Second Symphony, played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under George Szell. It was my first encounter with the symphony. I remember that afternoon, putting the CD on, and then going to my desk to work on something else. My back was to the hifi stereo set, and I let the music play pretty much as background music (if that is even possible with the Second Symphony). It was all new to me, and it sounded like a Romantic work, half-familiar, melodic, dramatic, spinning and swirling in ever increasing energy…

I raised my head from the table and turned around slowly. What is this?…. I dropped everything I was doing and my eyes opened wide as the finale began generating waves of D-major majesty. I listened intently to every note from the hifi set, as it drove Sibelius in ever mounting layers of magnificent defiance into my ears, into my soul.

The Flying Inkpot

The Flying Inkpot namecards from the late 1990s. Yes guys, I still have them.

In the 1990s, websites were born. In 1996 I joined a small group of university mates at the National University of Singapore who had set up a website for writing about the arts and reviewing local performances. These were the days of hand-coded webpages. The first GIF image had only appeared online a few years ago. We started simple. But we were driven by pure, altruistic passion – we were able writers, and we were eager to share. It was a time before social media, before web 2.0, even before mobile phones. It was the time of The Flying Inkpot (inkpot.com).

My editorial policy was simple:

  1. You write intelligently, but the layman must understand you. No pandering to lowest common denominator, no unapproachable musico-technobabble.
  2. There is no such thing as a “good review” or a “bad review” – only a well-written or a poorly written review.
  3. The VERY BEST reviews are the unfavourable reviews, written so well that even the musician criticized would agree.


Being the typical Type B that I was, I often championed the eclectic and those I deemed worthy of greater attention, underdogs and all. Among the likes of Janáček , Bantock, Hildegard von Bingen, Caldara and Jón Leifs, there stood the oeuvre of Jean Sibelius. But I had written so many reviews by the late 1990s that I felt that the Inkpot was becoming a bit of a monologue with my voice everywhere. On a whim, one day, instead of putting my name on the new Sibelius article, I put The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase.

Tongue firmly in cheek, I described him in the Inkpotters roll as:

The INKPOT SIBELIUS NUTCASE™ b.1132 Loves Hot Dogs
The Flying Inkpot is proud to be home to the World-Famous, World Premiere Recording of The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase. Having heard of the fabulous web machine from Singapore, the mysterious white-winged ISN hefted his 6-ton armour of Nordic Music review expertise and crossed the Bifröst bridge to the tropics, bringing with him several boxes of BIS CDs, his Nordic Sounds and Finnish Music Quarterly subscriptions, a copy of the Everyman edition of the Prose Edda, as well as The Kalevala. To date, he refuses to reveal his identity except to the closest of friends (all Inkpotters, heh). Naturally, he only uses Nokia handphones. Due to intense concentration while listening to multiple-layer, multi-pedal sonorities, he does not check his email very often.

And he began to write, and write, and write. Like some hero in disguise, I felt liberated and empowered by the fact that nobody knew it was me. I imagined I channeled some Nordic hero force and threw myself into championing Sibelius.

It was also the time of the BIS Sibelius Edition, I had already sworn by Neeme Järvi’s recordings (left), and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra’s cycle was beginning. In 1997, I had also begun reviewing Okko Kamu’s concerts with the Singapore Symphony, from the 1997 Oceanides to my first “live” hearing of the Seventh Symphony in 1999, and others.

During my time writing at the Inkpot, I never really expected much in terms of feedback. Even less for the many lesser-known composers and works I wrote about. Remember this was almost a decade before Facebook, before social media, before the interactive web we take for granted today. But we did have a primitive comments tool for articles, and people were commenting. To my humble surprise, many were heartfelt compliments. Many of these have been transplanted to dustofhue.com, including those of my most enduring Tapiola article.

Over the years it dawned on me that, the one thing about championing a “niche” composer like Sibelius is that you will occasionally find very passionate fellow supporters. This was deeply heartening, and instilled in me great faith.

Sibelius with his second daughter Ruth, in 1901.

The Silence of Yeah-I’m-A-Pa
In 2002 my first daughter was born. It was the beginning of an unexpected retirement from the Inkpot. It just happened. With a little regret, I left the reins with fellow writers (Derek Lim continues to do so at the Flyinginkpot.com) and over the next seven years I became preoccupied with a great many things unrelated to music. Though I never lost my love for Sibelius, for a long time my attention turned elsewhere.

In 2006 I was approached by The Philharmonic Orchestra, through Dr Chang Touliang‘s recommendation, to write for their Sibelius symphony cycle, Singapore’s first. Though I wasn’t too familiar with the orchestra, its music director, Mr Lim Yau, has always been one of my most admired Singaporean conductors. I could not refuse.

What followed was myself forcing my own rebirth: over the next year or so, I wrote the programme notes for the combinations of the First and Third Symphony, the Second and Fourth, and the last three symphonies. This was a revelatory experience, coming back to writing about Sibelius after some four, five years.

Dust of Hue
In 2009, my friend and then supervisor Olivier Amprimo repeatedly encouraged me to set up a blog. The time was the toddlerhood of social media, the blog engine had grown up. As someone who had been working so long on the web, I was quite keen. But what would I blog about? The answer came to me very quickly.

When I finally sat down one day (after more weeks of procrastination) and was signing up for my hosting services, I had to choose a domain name. Years of publishing online taught me that I needed something unique. I put in the first name that I thought of – and lo and behold, it was available. (Even in those days, securing a domain name you wanted wasn’t easy). Like I said before, very often, fate would always make the first one the one.

I began to republish my old Inkpot articles. I even discovered many comments on them that I never noticed before, such was the extent of my neglect. I am apologetic and thankful to all of you who left me comments between 2002 and 2007-ish. I wrote again, and I published the TPO notes online. In all, the experience, as Sibelius would put it in his experience writing the Fourth Symphony, “gave me strength and satisfaction” to do what I believed in.

So why me?

First, I am an organic thinker. I believe in rules and guidelines, yes, but I don’t believe in following them blindly. I don’t like hard mathematics, I don’t fancy step-by-step progression if I know of a way to “smoothen” them out and complete several steps in a multi-layered flow. I am a lousy multi-tasker but strangely I am remarkably good at making sense of the way multiple moving parts work together. I say “making sense”, I do not say “seeing” or describing.

I enjoy putting things in motion and relying on my faith and knowledge that “it’ll work” to let it work. Yes, this statistics-obsessed world hates my kind, as close to the truth as we may be. I detest counting and analyzing, especially over-analyzing things in order to find out how it works. I enjoy telling you the principles as to why it works, but I do not enjoy calculating it and turning it into a formula or a report book. I do not want to touch the butterfly’s wing and lose the dust of hue.

For these reasons and more, I think Sibelius’ music and philosophy is naturally kin to me.

There is one drawback – I have come so far in this inexplicable spiritual journey that I am now in a place where, if you do not understand Sibelius, you will never understand me completely. No one, not I, not my closest friends, least not my precious family, should take this lightly. It is a place in the heart where nature and humanity come together, where I hear Sibelius, where the dust of hue wings in the air, untouched, and is by nature, unexplainable.

So sweetheart, there’s your answer. Now you just need to grow up some more, understand why I do this and follow me to Finland one day. My first journey begins imminently. Ainola is my destination, Sibelius is my destiny.

At the Singapore Symphony, 24 Feb 2012

I ran for the Fourth Symphony. I sprinted for the tritone. I was running late, simply because I stopped for dinner right after knocking off from office, before heading to the Esplanade Concert Hall, and the meal took much longer than expected. Burned my tongue.

7pm and I was at Queenstown Station. On the way I scanned for cabs. On a Friday night? Nah, little chance, and no guarantee I won’t be caught in a jam. The rail map said I needed 13 minutes to reach City Hall Station. Then, I figured I needed at least 10 minutes to reach the concert hall.  I reached City Hall at 715pm. Not bad. But I still ran.  8 months of gym training coming into use.

Turned out, I had more than 5 minutes to spare, and by the time the grim tritone of the Fourth Symphony began, I had settled into my seat to hear the SSO attempt one of the most difficult Sibelius symphonies to pull off on an unsuspecting audience.  I think it’s fair to say most of the crowd (the hall was about half filled, I estimate) came for the Schumann Piano Concerto with Benjamin Grosvenor, and perhaps the popular Sibelius Fifth. That’s why the Fourth opens the concert. It’s so that you can’t run away.

But the SSO did not pull it off well. I don’t blame them. Dr Chang Tou Liang helpfully recalled for me – as I chatted with him at the head of the queue for  Grosvenor’s autographs – that the last time the SSO attempted the Fourth was circa 2000, “with Andrei Gavrilov, the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto, remember?” Dr Chang, you’ve got a really good memory, and this helped me find this old Inkpot review of the SSO concert from 28 July 2000.

Looking back, it sounds as if they actually did better back then. This night’s performance felt unconvincing, I had the feeling that the SSO could not feel for the work. As a result, it felt a little dis-unified, lacking that musical integration so crucial to Sibelius. There were some very good moments – the cello solos, the big tutti sections, but things like the interplay between various lines and phrases lacked organic unity. They were not seamless enough. As he did in 2000, Kamu led the orchestra without a break between the first and second movements, as well as between the third and final movements – this was just as effective this night as it was back then.

As the symphony drew to a close, I listened and watched how the SSO dealt with the “logical collapse” that makes up the ending of the Fourth. Alas, this too was not pulled off convincingly. It lacked that sense of helpless dissipation, that makes me feel utterly quiet and desolate, even a little grim, when the Fourth ends. While I applaud the SSO for trying – to play the Fourth is no mean feat – I feel that 12 years ought to have made an improvement. Till next time, then.

At the conclusion of the Schumann Concerto (see below)

The concert ended with Sibelius’ Fifth. This was a much better affair, performance-wise, that hiccup in the woodwinds during the opening “sunrise” notwithstanding. My main problem was with the transparency of the orchestra again, not unlike that in the Fourth. There were times when even the strings overwhelmed the brass, and many passages where I could not hear more than one musical line. That’s not the way a Sibelian orchestral score should sound, even at fortissimo. In the famous “Swan Hymn”, the horns sounded rough instead of pure. In fact, overall the sound of the orchestra in the hall was much muddier than I expected.

Despite these there were a number of well-played sections as far as pacing was concerned – the transition between the original first and second movements was very well-handled. Kamu directed in a tempo somewhat slower than I’m used to, and the orchestra followed exactly, smoothly. Their final test, the final chords were delivered with ample conviction.

I didn’t come for the concerto nor the young talented pianist who played them, I confess. But it was certainly the highlight. Benjamin Grosvenor, all 19 years of him, played with the eloquent mastery of a mature musician. His command of the piano is complete and unwavering, the instrument willingly obeying every one of his calls for sparkling clarity and lyric runs. Hunched over the keyboard, he played the Schumann with consummate ease and conviction, and the SSO provided beautiful support. Bravo to this young man. I would rather not call him a prodigy, I would simply call him a great pianist.

He chuckled when I asked him to do me a favour and sign his autograph to the Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase (I did this once before with Jennifer Koh). He asked me if this was some kind of internet nickname, and I explained that yeah I’ve been championing the composer online for some time, that I confess I’d come for the symphonies but I thoroughly enjoyed his performance. “Nutcase – really?”, he confirmed with a smile before writing. Later I could not help but realize that when I began championing Sibelius’ music online around the late 1990s, Mr Grosvenor was just 6 years old.  I wish him the best.

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. Continue reading Northern Exposure