Darkness in Light – At the Singapore Symphony 6 December 2013

It was 6th December – Finland’s Independence Day. And I was attending a concert featuring some of Finland’s best: Osmo Vänskä , the composer Sebastian Fagerlund and violinst Pekka Kuusisto. The stars seemed to be all in the right places.

Mr Kuusisto was here in Singapore to perform Finnish composer Sebastian Fagerlund’s Violin Concerto, “Darkness in Light”. Considered one of Finland’s most interesting young composers, the music of Fagerlund (b.1972) has been described as an “appealing mix of pulsating rhythmic layers, expansive gestures and undulating extended chords. Sometimes these elements are separate, sometimes blended – but the texture is always intuitively compelling. Brimming with carefully crafted details and elegant transitions, Fagerlund’s music has one clear direction: forward.” (Finnish Music Quarterly http://www.fmq.fi/2011/03/sebastian-fagerlund-full-speed-ahead/)

Photo by Sirpa RäihäI have never heard his music until now. To be frank, it is not easy to describe – but it is certainly very impressive. The opening of the concerto is ferocious as a fast-approaching storm, with skittering winds and wild energy. I pictured swirls of rain, torrents dancing. An exhilarating sense of flow and rhythm propels the first movement, “Energico”. The colours evoked by both orchestra and solo violin are spectacularly varied, with some truly alien sounds from the latter during cadenzas. An array – an aurora – of percussion, including piano with strings plucked directly by hand in the second movement, the “Lento intenso”, added to the post-post-modern soundscape of our century. The musical material warps through the orchestra with unstoppable energy in a multitude of hues, streaks and waves.

My words cannot do it justice, so I invite you to watch and listen to it yourself:

If you are interested in a recording, one is available on BIS with Pekka Kuusisto: Fagerlund: Darkness in Light

The sounds conjured by guest conductor Osmo Vänskä and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra ranged from ethereal otherworldly landscapes to mighty brass paeans reminiscent of one such occurrence heard in Sibelius’s Fifth – a work to come later in tonight’s programme.

I came to this concert  because of Osmo Vänskä. He is, simply, a hero to me. The maestro has been instrumental in my education of Sibelius – he was simply revelatory with his work on BIS, bringing to me vast and precious treasure troves of rare Sibelius. His first visit to Singapore back in 2010 was to conduct Mahler, a matter I lamented slightly about. But on this night, Fagerlund’s concerto was an unexpectedly enjoyable bonus to the symphonic main course: Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. As one of the first conductors to record the original version of the Fifth, Vänskä is unique, and thus to me, this concert was a must to attend.

More bonuses heaped upon bonuses, as in a rather unusual arrangement, literally, maestro Vänskä began the concert by taking up the 1st clarinet in Dvořák’s Serenade in D minor, Op.44. Together, the ensemble of 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 3 horns, cello and double bass evoked a beautiful atmosphere of quintessential Dvořák. Melodious, summery, nostalgic, “European”, their playing perfectly poised. And speaking of poise, one member of the ensemble pretty much stole the most of the show – Ng Pei Sian’s lively and poetic cello-playing was a thorough joy to watch.

Vänskä’s recordings of the Sibelius’s symphonies always have a special touch to them. When they are really good, they are an absolute revelation. Suffice to say, the performance tonight was simply the best “live” performance of the Fifth I’ve ever heard. Even the flubbing of the opening dawn calls by the horns, and some unsteady woodwind work in the beginning did not ultimately spoil my experience. The finale was taken very fast. The SSO strings kept up dutifully, unified and together, with impressive precision and energy – and the swan hymn was born out of that sweeping soundscape completely naturally and with grace and grandeur. The orchestra simply glowed. The E-flat gradually, and with a smoothness and logic rarely achieved “live” – evolved into the magnificent C major climax. My mouth was open with admiration. The triumphant brass paeans in the finale shimmered and blazed with confidence and life; the final life-affirming chords were perfectly forged, the intervals between the silences masterly timed by Vänskä, each chord reverberating in the Esplanade hall, booming with nature’s mysteries and answers. There I heard the silence that speaks, as Sibelius would’ve put it himself.

The date was 6 December – Finland’s Independence Day. Sitting at row E, I was not surprised to overhear snatches of conversation in Finnish. The man next to me had a Nokia phone. It reminded me, a little nostalgically, of the time I spent in Lahti and Helsinki last year. During the interval, Finns gathered at an embassy gathering, but I made my way to the queue for Pekka Kuusisto’s autograph.

“Mr Kuusisto, could you address this to ‘The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase’?” I gingerly asked. “It’s a nickname I used when I wrote about Sibelius in the past”.

“The Inkpot? That sounds familiar….. Oh it’s you!” To my delight, it seems he might have remembered the name. :)

dustofhue20131206kuusisto

After the concert, I was still wondering how I might be able to meet and shake Mr Vänskä’s hand. As I was waiting for the crowds to make their way out of the hall, I heard my name being called by a couple of friends.  One of them, let’s call him HP, said aloud that he had been wondering where “Mr Sibelius” had been all night, while the other, let’s call her SY, gave me directions to reach backstage. We paused at the door of the hall to shake the hand of Mr Fagerlund and I told him how much I enjoyed his concerto, and then I made my way backstage. Or rather, to the entrance. I hung around at the door, wondering if the maestro might exit this way. To be honest, I wasn’t hopeful. But as I inched closer to the door, I spotted a familiar face just inside. It was Dr Chang, the local pianophile and reviewer, and not to my surprise he was inspecting his latest autographed CD. :) Anyway, I asked him for help, and with the kind aid of one of the SSO bassists and the generosity of the security guard, I was led in.

Mr Vänskä stepped out of his guest room just as we arrived. I was so happy – it was almost the next best thing to meeting Sibelius himself, perhaps – a master conductor of his music, a powerful spiritual link back to the composer. I told Mr Vänskä about my love and work promoting Sibelius, got him to autograph the original BIS issue of the original version of the Fifth Symphony, and showed him, using my iPad, the Sibelius Facebook Page I run. “On behalf of Sibelius,” he said genially, “Thank you.”

I plan to see him again in 2015 – he confirmed he will be doing one concert in Lahti, for the Sibelius 150th anniversary celebrations.

The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase with conductor Osmo Vänskä
The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase with conductor Osmo Vänskä


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 Cycle – Symphonies 1 & 4 (BIS)

Sibelius demonstrates in the First Symphony a powerful sense of forward momentum. This is demonstrated with relentless energy by the Lahti Symphony (Sinfonia Lahti) in this recording, with razor sharp precision. This style brings out something that seemingly de-Romanticises the work, bringing out something more “modern”. There is a powerful sensation of gusts, of momentum in the reading. Whatever the case, their performance is one of amazing unity – at no point does the energy let up nor the movement falter. Phrasing suffers a bit under this hectic treatment, and listeners familiar with the work may find it doesn’t give the phrases much space for characterisation.

But Osmo Vänskä’s direction of the orchestra is acutely well-timed and executed, dramatic without being overblown. Couple this with the wide dynamic range and sonic sensitivity of the BIS recording, and you get an open arena for pin-point precision music-making. An example of this is the rush of anticipation towards the sudden subito piano at 4’22”. Even as the orchestra drops away, the reverberation it leaves behind creates a tense atmosphere for the four pizzicato chords – pure drama. Continue reading The Lahti Sibelius Cycle – Symphonies 1 & 4 (BIS)

Klami Whirls and his Violin Concerto

Cover Illustration by Peter Schoenecker. This article was first published in 1998.


Uuno Klami
(1900 – 1961)  is considered by many as the finest 20th century, non-contemporary, Finnish composer after Jean Sibelius. Significantly, Klami’s musical style is far different from his illustrious contemporary (and in a sense, predecessor). Rather than attempt to succeed Sibelius’ “organic” methods or soundworlds, which have never been matched, Klami’s music is much closer to what most listeners would term “20th century”. At the same time, it is highly original and very atmospheric. In some cases, as in his well-known Sea Pictures, it is all atmosphere. Continue reading Klami Whirls and his Violin Concerto

Jennifer Koh replaces Pike for July 30th Sibelius

Jennifer Koh – Photo by Janette Beckman, from jenniferkoh.com


Ah the serendipitous power of the web. I was googling for information on the soloist for the Singapore Symphony’s July 30th concert, featuring the Sibelius Violin Concerto, when I came across an SSO Press Release, dated July 8, announcing that Jennifer Pike, the young UK violinist originally slated to play here, will not be able to visit due to health reasons. In her place is the American violinist Jennifer Koh, who by the way is born of Korean parents.

This is interesting, since Miss Koh has played under Osmo Vänskä, and recorded the violin concerto of another Finnish composer, Uuno Klami, under the BIS label. I’ve taken the opportunity to republish it again here at dustofhue.com. This time, I know her Korean heritage.

http://www.sso.org.sg/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=276:american-violinist-jennifer-koh-replaces-jennifer-pike-on-jul-30&catid=8:media-releases&Itemid=41

Osmo Vänskä’s debut in Singapore… conducting Mahler

Illustration © André Carrilho.

There was a time when concert-goers in Singapore generally did not expect any big names to play with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO).  If memory serves me right, this was about the case in the earlier 1990s when I first began attending SSO concerts and also when I first started writing for The Flying Inkpot circa 1996. Not surprisingly this was also pre-Esplanade.  Still, we were treated to some big names (pre-Esplanade), among whom I can vividly recall the wonderful human being that is cellist Yo-Yo Ma (SSO 12 Mar 1999) and that icy duchess of violinists, Anne-Sophie Mutter (SSO 3-4 Jun 1999).

Continue reading Osmo Vänskä’s debut in Singapore… conducting Mahler

Sometimes magnificence deserves a better name

In September 2009, in a fit of inspiration, I decided to make a video – make that music video – of one of my favourite unknown pieces of Sibelius, which up till then has never had any presence on Youtube.

Continue reading Sometimes magnificence deserves a better name

The Lahti Sibelius Cycle – Symphonies 2 & 3 (BIS)

BIS-CD-862Symphony No.2 in D major, op.43
Symphony No.3 in C major, op.52

Lahti Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Osmo Vänskä

BIS-CD-862
[67:32] full-price

by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase

Let’s get to it. This is not the best Symphony No.2 (1901-2) I’ve heard at all. If Sibelius can be called Romantic, the strongest traces are probably found in the first two symphonies and much of the Violin Concerto. In his recording of the First Symphony, Vänskä produced one of the most magnificent performances I’ve ever heard on record. It is thus somewhat disappointing for me that the energy of that performance is mostly missing from this Second.

Vänskä chooses a relatively reticent mode, playing down the gargantuan Romanticism that the Second is capable of. Perhaps what he is doing is emphasizing the structural unity instead, which he succeeds in the nicely held-together first movement, the Allegretto.

Not that the Romanticism is missing – it is there, but the expression of contrast is somehow unsuccessful. There is a one-dimensionality to this performance despite the – as usual – vivid orchestral detail. For example, the Andante slow movement is somewhat un-dark. It lacks that sense of impending doom, the sensation of dark clouds gathering. At worst, the players sound a little…. bored?

Even the Vivacissimo, with its opening rushes of strings, begins as a mere trickle, warming up only around the second trio into the Finale. The majestic Finale is performed impressively – all the pacing and handling of the opening lines are well done. The tempo is well chosen and the moulding of the music refined and attentive. Maybe too attentive – I feel as if Vänskä is paying too much deliberate attention this time. Personally, I would rather the performers all let go and play their heart out in this unashamedly Romantic/emotional/patriotic finale. The second half of the finale, after the recap of the opening theme, is the most moving. Churning impressively into the Finale‘s final (and potentially embarrassing) trumpet chorale – I suddenly realized Vänskä’s treatment might work here… and yes, like the sun shining through the clouds, the triumphant hymn is gathered without overindulgence, but with glorious nobility.

Sibelius’ Second Symphony is quite a tough nut to crack (then again, all seven are). I remember a time when a group of friends and I went around searching for the “perfect Second”, our attention largely centred on the finale. Opinions differed of course, though we were most impressed with Mariss Jansons’ on EMI (to my utter disbelief and disappointment, he no longer seems to intend to finish that cycle, having also recorded the First, the Third and Fifth). If you want a version with gleaming contrast and enormous power, try Segerstam’s on Chandos. Budget: Ormandy on Sony Essential Classics.

The Third Symphony (1904-7) is apparently still Sibelius’ least popular, something which I don’t understand because I feel it possesses one of his most beautiful symphonic slow movements.

The clarity of its classically inspired architecture is of course much opportunity for Vänskä’s superb orchestra. Their performance of the opening Allegro moderato is very fine indeed – listen for the interplay of woodwind and strings.

This performance of the Third is one of a very rare breed where the Andantino con moto is longer than the Allegro moderato (11’12” and 10’15” respectively). No matter, for Vänskä’s performance is very beautiful, played with feeling. Listening to the wistful woodwind thirds, passing their melancholia to the strings, there is a feeling of slowly moving energy, sometimes flowing, sometimes draining. It is like the waters of a lake gently lapping on a quiet shore. The winds sigh, the grasses sway, all adding to the sense of beautifully melting sorrow.

The strangely, softly booming bass lines and timpani add to the star-lit darkness of the work. Listen to the quiet tolling effect of the timpani at the beginning as well – magical. As the movement draws towards its end, the tone and music broadens, becoming more and more beautiful. The orchestral detail breathtakingly depicts the dusky landscape. And then everything ends, quite suddenly, with just the slightest hint of tragedy.

The last movement of the Third is a scherzo and finale fused together. Vänskä’s handling of the transition from the “scherzo” part into the “finale” is seamless and convincing. The movement as a whole is very well done, very impressively unified, with many fine contributions from the winds. The Third is said to end abruptly, as if there was meant to be more – but in fact everything necessary has been done. Vänskä, to my ears, actually manages to make the work sound “finished”.

If you like the Third played with great excitement, I highly recommend Lorin Maazel’s very immediate account on Sony (SK61963). For a classic performance of the beautiful slow movement, go for Rattle’s mid-priced disc on EMI (CDM7 64120-2), also coupled with the Second (not good though).