Worthy of a 150th Birthday – Lahti International Sibelius Festival 2015 (and 2014)

To hear Kullervo in the land of its birth.

The press release revealing, for the first time, details of the 2015 Sibelius Festival in Lahti, Finland, came out yesterday.  And…. tell you what, let’s just get to it:

Sib web(Image Source: www.sibelius150.fi)

16th International Sibelius Festival 2015

31 August – 6th September 2015 (150th Anniversary of Sibelius’s Birth)

Programme:
Most of Sibelius’s major orchestral works will be performed, among them “all seven symphonies, Kullervo, the Violin Concerto, the Lemminkäinen Suite and numerous symphonic poems”.

Performers:
Lahti Symphony Orchestra, with guest appearances by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and BBC Symphony Orchestra (London)

Conductors:
Okko Kamu (Festival Artistic Director), Osmo Vänskä, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Sakari Oramo and Leif Segerstam.

 

15th International Sibelius Festival 2014

4 – 7 September 2014

Original versions of Sibelius’s orchestral works, including the Violin Concerto and Fifth Symphony.

  * * * * *

The concept of the 2014 programme  is apparently to act as a “prequel”, preparing the way for the jubilee programme of 2015. I was initially a little more excited by the 2014 programme, because the privilege to hear the original versions of the Violin Concerto and the Fifth is supremely rare. In my case, certainly, the chance of a lifetime. In particular, the original 1915 version of the Fifth Symphony – which in an old Inkpot review I described as being darker, and represents a sort of missing link between the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies (which are so very different). I look forward to hearing this “live”, even if I do feel a little guilt hearing something Sibelius wouldn’t want us to hear.

As for the 2015 programme, it is as it should be. Nothing less than all the major works have to be played, principally the seven symphonies, as well as the other “symphonies”, Kullervo and the Lemminkäinen Suite. I’m pretty sure Tapiola will be played, and that completes the picture.

Will you be going to Lahti in 2014 and 2015? I will. Look for me if you’re going.

Here’s the press release for further details:

Source: Sinfonia Lahti

BBC Symphony Orchestra (London) to make guest appearance at the Lahti Symphony Orchestra’s Sibelius Festival in 2015

29/08/2013

In 2015 the musical world will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Jean Sibelius (1865–1957). The Lahti Symphony Orchestra will play its part in the celebrations by organizing its annual Sibelius Festival on a larger scale than usual, in terms both of the music played and of the artists taking part. The festival will last a week, from 31st August to 6th September 2015, and there will be concerts not only by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra but also by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.

The total of six orchestral concerts at the sixteenth International Sibelius Festival will be conducted by Okko Kamu (artistic director of the festival), Osmo Vänskä, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Sakari Oramo and Leif Segerstam. Of these conductors Vänskä and Saraste, during their own periods in Lahti, have previously served as artistic directors of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra and Sibelius Festival, before Kamu took over as principal conductor in 2011. In particular during Vänskä’s twenty-year reign as chief conductor the Lahti Symphony Orchestra gained world renown, to a large extent as a result of its work with the music of Sibelius.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra will give two concerts, one conducted by Okko Kamu and the other by its principal conductor Sakari Oramo; the concert by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra will be led by its principal conductor emeritus, Leif Segerstam.

At the festival’s concerts most of Sibelius’s major orchestral works will be performed, among them all seven symphonies, Kullervo, the Violin Concerto, the Lemminkäinen Suite and numerous symphonic poems. In addition there will be chamber concerts and other Sibelius-themed events. Further programme and soloist details will be announced later.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s first visit to Finland was in 1956, then too in a Sibelian spirit

‘The 2015 festival will offer Sibelius enthusiasts a unique, week-long opportunity to hear performances of the composer’s most important works by conductors who have earned world renown for their Sibelius interpretations. My fellow conductors have been happily unanimous in agreeing to the programme that I suggested’, says the festival’s artistic director Okko Kamu, and goes on: ‘It is fantastic that the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which played Sibelius in Finland already in the 1950s, has accepted our invitation and will be coming to Lahti at its busiest time, during the Proms. And it goes without saying that we also invited the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, with its great history of playing Sibelius; my own father played in the orchestra in Sibelius’s time, and I myself have a close personal relationship with it. It is also excellent that we shall present such a major event in the obvious setting of our splendid home, the Sibelius Hall.’

‘It is a great honour for the BBC Symphony Orchestra to be invited to appear in the 2015 Lahti Festival most especially in such a significant year of celebration of the music of Sibelius. We are very excited to be appearing with our Chief Conductor, Sakari Oramo and a rare opportunity to work with Okko Kamu, performing alongside our colleagues in the Lahti Symphony Orchestra’, says Paul Hughes, general manager of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He goes on: ‘The BBCSO first visited Scandinavia on a four-country tour in June 1956. They gave two concerts in the Sibelius Festival, Helsinki, under the baton of Sir Malcolm Sargent on 10th and 11th June and the repertoire was all-Sibelius, including Symphonies 1 and 3, three Historical Scenes, Finlandia, Tapiola and En saga. And the orchestra and Sargent were entertained by Sibelius himself at his home in Järvenpää.’

‘The invitation to perform at Lahti’s famous Sibelius Festival in our national composer’s jubilee year is a great joy and honour for the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra’, says Gita Kadambi, general manager of the orchestra. Founded in 1882 by Robert Kajanus, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra has throughout its long history regarded it as a matter of honour to nurture the tradition that arose from the many decades of collaboration between Kajanus and Jean Sibelius. Between 1892 and 1923 Kajanus’s orchestra gave the first performances of most of Sibelius’s symphonic works, conducted by the composer himself. Sibelius was also present on the orchestra’s first foreign tour in the summer of 1900, on which occasion his music was heard for the first time in European concert halls.

Single tickets for the 2015 Sibelius Festival will be available from 1st September 2014; group and advance bookings begin in the spring of 2014.

The Lahti Symphony Orchestra’s Sibelius Festival

The Lahti Symphony Orchestra, widely appreciated internationally for its Sibelius interpretations both on disc and on concert tours, organizes its annual Sibelius Festival in September, in the hall that bears the composer’s name. The festival has taken place ever since the hall was completed in 2000. The idea of the festival is to offer Sibelius enthusiasts from all over the world a long weekend (Thursday to Sunday) of wide-ranging programmes reflecting various aspects of the composer’s music, played by the finest performers. In the same way that the famous Bayreuth Festival is devoted entirely to the music of Wagner, so too the Lahti Symphony Orchestra’s Sibelius Festival offers exclusively Sibelius.

Right from the start the festival has attracted international attention. Members of the audience – both groups and individuals – have come from all over Europe as well as such countries as the USA, Canada, Japan and Australia. Up to 20% of tickets have been sold to international visitors.

Each year the festival also attracts international press coverage. In 2003, for example, the prestigious Austrian newspaper Die Presse named the festival as the most important of its kind anywhere in the world. Over the years the festival has been featured by The Times (London), Die Welt (Berlin) and by New York Public Radio (WNYC).

The Sibelius Festivals in 2013 and 2014

This year’s Sibelius Festival will begin with a concert at the Sibelius Hall next Thursday, 5th September 2013, conducted by Okko Kamu, the orchestra’s principal conductor and artistic director of the festival. The festival’s theme is Sibelius’s music for the theatre.

The 2014 festival, conducted by Okko Kamu, will take place from 4th to 7th September 2014. The programme of the festival will prepare the way for the jubilee programme of 2015 and its focus will be on the original versions of Sibelius’s orchestral works, including the Violin Concerto and Fifth Symphony.

Source: Sinfonia Lahti

The Lahti Sibelius Festival 2013

Lahti Sibelius Festival 2013

“Legends, a Tempest and an Oriental Feast at the Sibelius Festival”

So goes the webpage of the 14th International Sibelius Festival of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, which will run from 5 – 8 September 2013, at the Sibelius Hall in Lahti, Finland.

Without further ado, here is the programme:

Thursday, 5 September
Musik zu einer Scène
Pelléas et Mélisande, concert suite
Scène de Ballet
King Christian II, concert suite
Cortège

Friday, 6 September
Kuolema (Death), original score
The Tempest, original score

Saturday, 7 September
Karelia Overture
Wedding March from Die Sprache der Vögel (The Language of the Birds)
Belshazzar’s Feast, concert suite
Lemminkäinen Suite

The chamber/ensemble programme for Saturday and Sunday are not yet confirmed. The above info comes courtesy of Andrew Barnett of the United Kingdom Sibelius Society, authority 100% certified.

It is a very very colourful programme, featuring Sibelius from almost every known angle. Regrettably, I probably will not be able to attend this year. Limited finances is cause, period.

What shall I most miss? Without doubt, it will be the complete score of The Tempest, which contain some truly wonderful music. Music that is pleasantly sylvan, pastoral elegance, as well as fearsome orchestral storms and some of Sibelius’ advanced sounds. Among these, I am most emotionally attached to the absolute final piece in the Tempest music, the Ossia – Epilogue.  As I have written before in my post called Sibelius’ Farewell – Thoughts on Sibelius’ Silence and Dilemma, Prospero’s Art, and Shakespeare’s Final Play – at 1 minute, 20 seconds long, its resonant nostalgia is utterly heartbreaking, and breathtakingly brief.

If you don’t already own this (note that it is NOT part of The Tempest SUITES) in one form or another, allow me to show you this old YouTube contribution of mine:

 

For these 80 seconds of melancholia alone would I go for this year’s festival.

Please visit http://www.sinfonialahti.fi/sibelius/en_GB/sibelius for information on ticketing for the Lahti Sibelius Festival and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.

 

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, 3 March 2012

SSO 3 Mar 2012 TicketBefore going to this concert, I scanned through my entire collection of CDs looking for an album by Marc-André Hamelin for him to autograph. I could not find a single one. I was thoroughly disgusted with myself.

During the days at the Flying Inkpot (or go to flyinginkpot.com for the new site), Mr Hamelin’s fame was expanding at high gear. His recordings with Hyperion Records, including works by many an unknown composer, astounded the music circles. It was a great time for exploring piano music. Mr Hamelin’s discography is still humongous – though I am not a big fan of piano music, I have immense respect for him for championing the lesser known. I was pretty sure I had something from his discography… didn’t I own the Alkan concerto at least? I shall have to put this down under the Possible List of CDs I Loaned Out Last Century That I Have No Hope of Getting Back.

Never mind. Again I confess, I didn’t really come for the concerto. Even the concert title/ticket makes no mention of it or who. Except we’re talking about Beethoven’s poetic Piano Concerto No.4, with no less than Marc-André Hamelin, one of the world’s living best.

And he played with masterful composure. Hamelin entered the stage with the quiet poise reserved only for the noblest of pianists. He brought wisdom to the piano, and instantly becalmed the audience with one single notion: this elegant concerto will be played as it should be. It was simply all right. The work, a gentle sister to the majestic “Emperor” Concerto, gave both pianist and orchestra ample opportunities to display subtlety of meditative touch and beauty of tone. The SSO strings gave wonderful performances, full of strength and delicacy, giving me great hope for the second half of the concert.

The concerto’s Andante struck me with its somewhat searching, meditative character. It was almost Sibelian in quality. The thoughtful, melancholic tone, the way melodies seemed incompletely formed, wandering, and that final, elegaic sigh – Hamelin evoked to perfection. While there was an inordinate amount of coughing and velcro-tearing during the first movement and perhaps halfway through the Andante, by the end of the latter, Hamelin had the entire hall in his kingly hold, and we stayed enraptured till the end of the finale. The word that kept appearing in my mind was “dignified”. Hamelin, the SSO and Okko Kamu delivered a performance that exuded dignity, a Beethovenian nobility upheld by assurance of skill.

During the intermission, I approached the SSO merchandise booth and picked up a copy of Hamelin’s recordings of his own piano compositions, including his 12 Études in all the minor keys. I felt that asking such a great pianist to simply autograph the programme booklet was not respectful enough. And in any case, I still love to hear new music, and here was a whole disc of it played by the composer. Standing in the middle of the queue, I discovered to my delight that the Hyperion disc had a clear tray, behind which was a photograph of Mr Hamelin.

Yes, that 2″x 1″ corner of cloudy weather was perfect for an autograph.

Autograph - Marc-André Hamelin

Like Mr Grosvenor before, Mr Hamelin was very amused by my request. He chuckled with a warm smile, and added an extra “(!)” after “Nutcase”. I told him how dignified his performance was, and we shared a warm handshake. Such a gentleman. A good memory, worth treasuring.

* * * * *

A young lady reads about Sibelius while queuing for Hamelin's autograph
A young lady reads about Sibelius while queuing for Hamelin's autograph. I badly wanted to tell her that the last paragraph is inaccurate. There is much evidence that Sibelius was still composing into the late 1930s, and hadn't "abandoned composition in the 1920s", as the notes say.

My memory has not forgotten the fact that Okko Kamu is the conductor who granted my wish to hear the Seventh Symphony “live”, in 1999. While I did actually tell him my wish in person, sometime in the late 1990s, I suppose he would’ve done it anyway sooner or later, even if the Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase didn’t exist. But otherwise, the SSO isn’t the first orchestra in Singapore to complete a cycle of the Sibelius Symphonies – that honour lies with The Philharmonic Orchestra, which did it under Lim Yau in 2007-2008 (of which this author wrote the programme notes).

Listening to the Seventh Symphony “live”, I sometimes want to slow the experience of time, just so I can savour it. In a “live” performance, there is no rewind button (and truthfully, trying to rewind the Seventh is a crime). Still, the best performances proceed with inexorable logic. It is a timeless 21 minutes of life, which feels neither long nor short, a chance to touch the face of symphonic divinity – you want it to last but you know it cannot.

Twenty minutes for a symphony is very short in the tradition of classical music. My wife texted me, as I was on my way home before 10pm, asking how come I was so early. My answer to her, besides asking what she wanted for supper, was simple.

Truth be told, I have held the expectation of coming to this concert for so many months, I found it a little hard to satisfy the anticipation – it was soon to be over.  The expectation must have been tremendous, you must think. But after last week’s so-so performance of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, I was not too hopeful – until I heard the Beethoven.

To my delight, the SSO opened Sibelius’ Sixth Symphony with full forest light and glittering sunshine. A font from which came a musical stream of pure cold spring water, as Sibelius might have put it. The orchestra reveled in the chamber-like quality of the music, by turns bright and spirited, or dimming as it invoked wisps of Tapiola. As a whole, the SSO sounded much, much better than it did last week – in fact, it sounded almost like a completely different orchestra. Strings and winds all played with unity and wonderful transparency. While I wished the harp scintillated a little more, otherwise the sounds the orchestra created were bright, airy, sparkling, as befits this, the most sylvan of Sibelius’ symphonies.

I was seated by the side of the hall during the first half with the concerto, but moved to the centre, near the back for the symphonies. I had the whole row to myself, as well as the devoted attention of a well-serviced air conditioning vent. Suitably cold and wintry, the spring waters of the Sixth gave way to the alpine magnificence of the Seventh.

As he did in 1999, Kamu led the orchestra with impressive command. I gasped as lines of the score appeared that I don’t recall hearing before – that’s the best thing about hearing works like this “live”. The SSO once again displayed remarkable transparency, particularly in the strings. While not 100% perfect, they did ample justice to the score. The horns, so rough last week in the Fifth, sounded amazing tonight. The musicians held the performance united, creating voluminous layers of sounds – bass pedals, soaring strings, fluttering woodwind. They held it all very well together. But ironically, it was in the three mighty trombone solos where their act of breeching from the unified layers to intone their majestic hymn seemed disruptive.

Perhaps, like in 1999, Kamu sought not to allow the three climaxes to become overwhelming. I found them slightly underwhelming, though not in an entirely bad way.  It just seemed a little too carefully toned down. The final bars, the symphony’s final invocation of infinity, flowed into being much too soon for me to savour. I was distracted by the bass trombone coming in a split second too early, and was trying to grasp what it meant – but there was no time: the final C major chord was here. Infinity came, wrought with timelessness and Sibelius commanded that the symphony end. Kamu swept his baton, the SSO surged in volume. I didn’t want it to end, I wanted it to last longer. But alas, the light blazed and dimmed out of existence, and I was cast out from the black field of stars, feeling all alone back on earth.

It was not a perfect performance, it was not the greatest I’ve heard, and I was left a little emotionally unsatisfied – but it was still a good performance. Good enough, that may I say, if you keep it this way, SSO, I think you are ready for Tapiola.

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.

Kavakos in Singapore

The Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos (not to be confused with the Spartan, who did not play the violin) will be playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra on 8 September 2011. Curiously, no one, not even the SSO, has mentioned the fact that he is just about the only person in modern times to have performed the original 1903/04 version of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. He was the soloist in BIS’ 1992 world-premiere recording of the original score, which I reviewed at The Flying Inkpot in 1998 – the article is republished here.

Kavakos plays Sibelius with SSO 8 Sep 2011
SSO July-Sept 2011 Season

As far as I remember, after the recording, the score was returned to the Sibelius family. Leonidas Kavakos is thus the only violinist to have performed the original work since its one and only 1904 premire (which was a bit of a disaster by the way). In any case, this unique experience Mr Kavakos had probably makes his understanding of the concerto different from other violinists. Well worth hearing.

Here he is captured in Athens in 2008, performing the concerto (the final version). We’ll be able to catch him in Singapore on 8 September, 2011 at the Esplanade.

Somewhat inexplicably, the concerto is paired with Mahler’s First Symphony. The concert also marks the beginning of a complete symphony cycle by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Okko Kamu – only the second time in Singapore. The first complete Sibelius cycle was performed by The Philharmonic Orchestra under Lim Yau from 2007-2008.

Kavakos Plays Sibelius – 8 September 2011 (Thu), 7.30pm, Esplanade Concert Hall
SIBELIUS: Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
MAHLER: Symphony No.1 in D major “Titan”
Leonidas Kavakos (violin), conducted by Lan Shui. Tickets from SISTIC. [Reviewed on Dust of Hue]

The Sibelius Symphonies: Finlandia – 16 September 2011 (Fri), 7.30pm, Esplanade Concert Hall
SIBELIUS: Finlandia
LALO: Cello Concerto in D minor
SIBELIUS: Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.43
Ng Pei-Sian (Cello), conducted by Okko Kamu

The Sibelius Symphonies: Nos. 1 & 3 – 20 September 2011 (Tues), 7.30pm, Esplanade Concert Hall
SIBELIUS: Symphony No.3 in C major, Op.52
MOZART: Piano Concerto No.23 in A major, K.488
SIBELIUS: Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39
Melvyn Tan (piano), conducted by Okko Kamu

This is Melvyn Tan’s debut with the SSO, and I for one am glad he has made it home.

The Sibelius Symphonies: Nos. 4 & 5 – 24 February 2012 (Fri), 7.30pm, Esplanade Concert Hall
SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63
SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54
SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82
Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), conducted by Okko Kamu [Reviewed on Dust of Hue]

The Sibelius Symphonies: Nos. 6 & 7 – 3 March 2012 (Sat), 7.30pm, Esplanade Concert Hall
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58
SIBELIUS: Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104
SIBELIUS Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105
Marc-André Hamelin (piano), conducted by Okko Kamu [Reviewed on Dust of Hue]

(Tickets from the usual SISTIC places).

Well, the SSO programmers have done well pairing the Sibelius symphonies with famous pianists. That should fill up some seats! And hopefully give a valuable opportunity to those unfamiliar with Sibelius’ symphonies to hear these masterpieces. Yes yes, I don’t think Sibelius is as popular as he should be, and I honestly don’t imagine many will deliberately attend a concert for his symphonies. Still, a complete symphony cycle with the national orchestra is an achievement.

I’m unable to say which of these concerts would be the most worth going – they all are. Though of course if I HAD to pick one, it would be the last one with the Seventh Symphony.

Marc-André Hamelin! I hope pianophiles will stay back to hear the final and greatest symphony of Sibelius! If not, can you give me your ticket? :)