The painter of this portrait is currently all of 15 years old.
Late last year in 2013, I embarked on a casual internet search for new Sibelius portraits for my Jean Sibelius Pinterest board and my eyes lit up as a a new one appeared amongst the images Google offered. A young man stands behind the portrait, the painter’s head dwarfed by the massive coloured bust of the composer, rendered in stark colours of black, blue, greys and whites.
The familiar 1949 photograph of Sibelius by Yousuf Karsh has been interpreted in a unique modern light by the young painter. The portrait captures Sibelius’s intent faraway look – perhaps it is a little less stern, the presence of the colour blue lending a little youth to the then (at the time of the photograph) 84-year-old composer, but it retains the magisterial quality of the original photo. The swaths of blue and smaller dashes of red give Sibelius’s face a certain life and dynamism, compared to the magnificent austerity of the photograph. Not that the portrait is better or worse – it is simply a new interpretation.
“I am a 15-year-old student from Los Angeles, California, ” Jack (left) wrote to me when I requested for an interview via email. “I have been an artist for most of my life, starting with drawing on the walls of my house with markers and painting blob-shaped objects on paper.
“I constantly explore new ways of creative expression, including playing cello (which I have done from grade two), making films, taking photos, composing music and writing. During my study of the cello, I was introduced to the fabulous music of Sibelius. I greatly admire his music; it is so expressive, and so filled with emotion.”
A quick click on the image on Google that day in December 2013 had led me to the blog of none other than famed Pulitzer prize-winning photographer David Hume Kennerly. He won – at age 25 – the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for his portfolio of photographs taken of the Vietnam War, Cambodia, East Pakistani refugees near Calcutta, and the Ali-Frazier fight in Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971. Mr Kennerly has been named one of the 100 most important people in photography by the American Photo Magazine and has also photographed every American president since Richard Nixon.
In his blog post from 2 Nov 2013, Mr Kennerly showcased the new portrait his son Jack had just completed. “This made for a good black and blue moment!” Unable to ascertain how to contact the painter, I sent a message to Mr David Kennerly instead and was delighted to receive an email from Jack himself in January 2014. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Mr David Hume Kennerly for so kindly connecting me to his young son.
Jack calls Yousuf Karsh one of the greatest and most influential portrait photographers who has ever existed – and surely no one would disagree. He chose to paint Sibelius because the look on his face in the 1949 photograph (below) is “very intense and powerful, the lighting accentuating his bulging veins”. The photograph seems to contrast wildly with the image of the composer of such “delicate and complex passages that have made him famous”, says Jack.
“I originally wanted to faithfully copy the photograph onto the canvas, ” he goes on to explain. “However, I used a canvas on which I had previously painted an abstract form. I didn’t like the original work, so I decided to paint over it. When I was half finished with the Sibelius painting, I stepped back and noticed the interesting and beautiful way he looked with the color from the original abstract painting showing through into the portrait. So, I left the painting ‘unfinished’.”
This remark by Jack on his “completion” of the portrait will surely bring a smile to all Sibelians. We know of Sibelius’s own struggles with finishing (or not finishing) his masterpieces. More importantly, we know of Sibelius’s particular way of letting the music almost compose itself – and in this sense, it relates to the experience of realizing a work of art has been completed at an unexpected point in its crafting, in its time.
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/)
I 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:
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. :)
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.
“Meeting Sibelius for the first time, I had the impression of being in the presence of someone almost superhuman. Here was a being I had admired and looked up to all my life — and suddenly I was in his presence. He was a towering man, a towering personality, with a magnificent head and powerful face. His beautiful home was full of records, many of which we had sent him from America throughout the years. Goddard Lieberson [President of Columbia Records, 1956-71, 1973-75] sent him many recordings from Columbia Records. I remember that I once sent him a recording taken off the air of his Lemminkäinen suite, which we later recorded for Columbia. He didn’t want it to be performed; that was one of the works he had a strong aversion to, and he wanted to keep the score from the public. But I managed to get a copy from Helsinki, studied it thoroughly, liked it and performed it. Then I sent a special recording to Sibelius. I understand that he put it away for weeks before listening to it. He was afraid because he was such an uncompromising critic of his own work. But when he heard it he was pleased and sent me a cable followed by a kind and enthusiastic letter. When we recorded the work officially, I sent him several copies and he was really touched. I like to think that I was instrumental in getting Sibelius to appreciate one of his own works!
Sibelius’ First Symphony was the “first” for me in another sense — it was the first of the master’s symphonies I ever conducted. This was in 1932, with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra — and we recorded it for RCA Victor in that year. I think perhaps it was the first Sibelius symphony to be recorded outside of Scandinavia. Of course the great Finnish conductor, Sibelius’ friend Kajanus, had broken ground for Sibelius years before, and so had Koussevitzky, Stokowski and Beecham. I have played the First Symphony many times in the intervening thirty years, and it never loses its fascination for me. Recordings have changed a great deal since 1932, and so have interpretations of his works to the end, and he always had admiration for the work of my colleagues Stokowski and Koussevitzky. I will risk immodesty to add that he praised my readings too. His enthusiasm is a source of great pride to me.
Strangely enough, Sibelius has never been popular in the Germanic countries — excepting, of course, Scandinavia. Germany and Austria never took him to their hearts the way the British and we did. And yet he studied in Germany and the German masters influenced his musical development — I remember a dozen years ago when the State Department asked me to conduct some concerts in Berlin with the RIAS Orchestra. I programmed the Sibelius Second Symphony and it didn’t take me much more than one measure to realize that the orchestra had never seen it before. When we had played it through, the very Germanic concertmaster said to me, “This isn’t such a bad work after all,” and left it at that. The work seemed to make even less of an impression on the critics — one of them began his review with the question, “Why Sibelius?” Fortunately, there are still a few conductors around whose answer to that question would be, “Because Sibelius is among the giants.” The Fourth I love, the Fifth I love and the Seventh — all of them free, wild, beautiful things, more like elemental forms of nature than consciously shaped works of art. –>
It is difficult for me to choose a favorite among the seven symphonies of Sibelius. The first is still under the influence of Tchaikovsky, but it is a healthy thing for a first symphony to recall the past, and Sibelius does so gloriously. The Second Symphony shows the composer struggling heroically to free himself from this influence, but not fully succeeding; the very tensions created by this struggle give the work its power. Like the First, it is filled with passages that only Sibelius could have conceived. The Third I don’t understand, frankly. The Third and Sixth remain enigmas, as far as I am concerned. The Fourth I love, the Fifth I love and the Seventh — all of them free, wild, beautiful things, more like elemental forms of nature than consciously shaped works of art. And I wish I could say that I love the Eighth, too, but alas, like everyone else I have never heard it and don’t know if it exists or ever existed.
The Eighth Symphony is a mysterious subject. Everytime I saw Sibelius — and I saw him four or five times, perhaps more — in his home about twenty-seven miles away from the city of Helsinki, I asked him about it, sometimes very tactfully, sometimes quite directly. And his response was always the same: he became very upset and nervous and quickly changed the subject. He seemed to be disturbed that anyone should bring up the subject of the Eighth Symphony. His son-in-law, Jussi Jalas, a very fine conductor and a good friend of mine, had told me that he was convinced that there was an Eighth Symphony. On the other hand, Sibelius’ oldest daughter assured me that there was no such symphony. If there was one, he destroyed it. Sibelius is reputed to have said to intimate friends, “If I cannot write a better symphony than my Seventh, then it shall be my last.” Apparently he was not satisfied — if he wrote an Eighth Symphony — with what he had done. At any rate, he seems to have enjoyed the mystery surrounding the existence of the work.
Naturally, I always told him that if and when his Eighth Symphony was ready for performance I hoped he would give me the opportunity to give it its world premiere. There was never any response: his fine, nervous hands would begin to tremble even more and he would look away with a troubled expression. Out of my admiration and respect I would never press the matter, although I felt puzzled and disappointed. Twice I went to his house with Olin Downes, who was one of his greatest admirers and had written a book about him. Mr. Downes promised me that he would bring up the subject, because I told him I didn’t dare to anymore. But he got the same reply, or rather non-reply: a strange twist in Sibelius’ face, a nervous intensity in his eyes, and the trembling hands. I said in an aside to Mr. Downes, “We’d better drop the subject.” We did. It shall always remain a tantalizing mystery for me.
As wonderful as it was to meet Sibelius for the first time, it was even more wonderful to have been able to introduce him, some years later, to the members of The Philadelphia Orchestra. That occurred in June 1955, and there is a rather touching story connected with the meeting. For some months previous I had been in correspondence with Dr. [Nils-Eric] Ringbom (See bio in Finnish), the director of the Helsinki Philharmonic, in order to arrange for the orchestra to meet the master while we were in Finland on tour. Sibelius was very ill at the time, very old and fragile and tormented by ear trouble. The day we were to go to his secluded villa at Järvenpää arrived, and though it was cold and raw and raining, the men were as excited and eager as children. And I was as excited as any of them. Imagine my disappointment when Dr. Ringbom called to confess that when he had written to me in Philadelphia to say that everything was arranged he had not mentioned that Sibelius himself knew nothing about the projected visit. He had only spoken to Mrs. Sibelius, who had agreed at the time but now flatly said no, her husband was too ill to receive us.
There we were, in Helsinki, thousands of miles from home and within twenty-seven miles of Sibelius. “Dr. Ringbom,” I said, “you must not disappoint us. Please call up Mrs. Sibelius and explain to her that this orchestra, from the very earliest days with Stokowski, has done as much to spread Sibelius’ fame as any orchestra in the world. All they ask in return is to see him.” It worked.
My wife and I were having tea with him, and the orchestra came in two buses. Even then he hadn’t been told that they were coming. He was so sensitive — perhaps the most sensitive, shy man I ever met in my life — that the knowledge that he was to meet 110 musicians would probably have incapacitated him if he were given too much time to think about it. And those poor colleagues of mine were standing out in the cold rain with thin raincoats on, waiting! Finally I took the bull by the horns and said, “Mr. Sibelius, do you know that the entire Philadelphia Orchestra, the orchestra that played your music when nobody else did, is waiting outside, hoping to meet you? Would you just go out on the balcony and say hello to them?”
“But I cannot speak English well enough,” he protested. “They will not understand me.”
“Speak German, they’ll understand you. Just look at them, don’t say anything.”
And so he got his heavy winter coat and hat — there are pictures of that visit — and came out with me. “Gentlemen,” I said, “Mr. Sibelius needs no introduction.” They applauded him and bravoed him until I had to tell them, “Gentlemen, Mr. Sibelius is not well, but he wanted to come out and say a few words to you.” And then he told them, with the beautiful simplicity of his few English words, how grateful he was to them for playing his music so nobly. At last his oldest daughter pulled him back, saying, “Daddy you’re going to catch cold.” Fortunately, he didn’t catch cold, but we were worried that he might, for it was bitter that day.
He died two years later, in 1957. And I think today we perform his music better for the memory of those few minutes when he came out on his porch and spoke to us. It was an experience that none of us will ever forget.”
EUGENE ORMANDY (1899 – 1985)
– Essay from Sibelius: Symphony No. 1 in E-Minor, Op. 39. The Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy. Columbia Masterworks MS-6395.
Janet Abbots and Andrew Barnett of the United Kingdom Sibelius Society bring us a glimpse of the recital at Brighton, where Sibelius’s granddaughter Satu Jalas recently performed. Like the composer’s music, the reflection is brief, but concentrated in intense memories.
It was a somewhat surreal experience to see Satu strolling though the streets of Brighton, with her grandfather’s violin strapped to her back. On 21st February 2013, both violin and grandchild played his music, and in between the notes came many special memories. The image of a grandfatherly Sibelius is as charming as it is a contrast to the rugged, stately photographs of the elderly composer we are so used to seeing.
Sibelius would welcome his grandchildren when he returned from his forest walks, and they would run into his open arms. When the little ones themselves came back from the woods, he would ask them, “What did you see?” His grandfatherly response turns out to be as wise as it is pure Sibelius (the answer later).
But when Sibelius realised that Satu was serious about playing the violin, he gave his own instrument to her, believed to have been made by the renowned Austrian instrument maker Jacob Stainer (c. 1617 – 1683). Satu notes that while she is privileged to be the owner and player of this unique instrument, she does not want to underline her personal role among Sibelius’s 16 grandchildren.
“A Winters Evening with Sibelius”, presented by the Finnish School of Brighton with Satu Jalas, the composer’s granddaughter playing his own violin, and world-renowned pianist and principal artist in the Complete Sibelius Edition on BIS records Folke Gräsbeck, performing a programme of music at St Pauls C. E. School in Brighton, must surely have raised a few eyebrows. There was considerable press coverage in Helsinki’s main newspaper Helsing Sanomat and also in Brighton. To include a world premiere of the Andantino for piano solo in D major was a massive coup, and a very reasonable audience of around 70 or so were in attendance.
Satu Jalas brought out the beauty of the revered instrument, relaying fascinating information about the violin and of her grandfather. She was really able to bring out the human side of Sibelius, not just in music but in memories. She recalls that her overriding impression of him was of his piercing blue eyes that absolutely radiated spirituality, an image that has stayed with her today still. Sibelius was such an avid devotee of the sauna, he would smell her neck just to get a whiff of it. Grandfather Sibelius was a gentle and generous person, Satu recalled fondly.
“As a child I spent with my brother and sister several periods in his home, called Ainola… usually every year some days at the end of August and also during the winter holidays, during the year some weekends and so on. I saw and remember his big blue eyes, and felt a very great spirituality, and there was something heavenly in his way of looking at us children; and this intuitive impression doesn’t go away from my mind.
He didn’t stay very much with us, but when he did it was really very special. For instance, as he usually got up late in the morning, and we had already played a long time in the garden, he called us every morning around his bed, where he sat with thousands of pillows, and asked us what everybody had dreamt of; and it had to be a very detailed description – it was his way to know us better inside, and it was not a stupid idea… When he came back from his long walks he met us in the garden with grandmother, and then he opened his arms and we ran to him…
He also told us a lot of nature’s secrets. Once, one of my cousins went to the woods and was coming back, then grandfather asked: ‘Have you been in the woods? What did you see?’ ‘Nothing special’, was the answer. Then my grandfather winked and said: ‘Go back and look more closely.’
I came across this video while looking for Sibelius on YouTube. It is titled simply, “Sibelius Pictures” but the thumbnail gives a clue why it seems unusual. As you start the video, the video explains that these are “Drawings by 6th Grade Children After Listening to Sibelius”. The video is credited to Escola Frederic Godàs, a public school in Lleida, Spain.
Not entirely sure what is the context of this exercise, but what an interesting thing to see how kids would depict Sibelius’ music. It looks like the music used are standard warhorses, the “Intermezzo” from the Karelia Suite (as hinted by the many mentions of “Carelian” in some of the drawings), Finlandia (drawings of Finnish independence), and the “Valse triste” (“sad waltz”) from the music for Kuolema (“Death”). Not surprisingly, the children were probably clued in on the context, if you look at the many vivid (and sometimes amusing) drawings of the figure of Death come to claim its due.
I’ve been told more than once by fresh listeners to Sibelius that his music sounds like film music, particularly in the context of scenery expositions, such as sunrises. My standard answer is that it’s the other way around – generations of film music composers have copied Jean Sibelius. While Sibelius himself often wrote music with extremely pictorial leanings, his symphonic essays were the exact opposite – he denied any extra-musical intentions in them. Nevertheless, as listeners we are hard pressed not to hear nature in them.
As the composer himself once said, nature and life pervades everything he composes. I hope these children will find his artistic influence of lasting benefit in their lives. Now that they’ve tried their hand at Kuolema, I would’ve loved to see them draw Tapiola…
(“We were all enthralled by the dark pine forests and the shadowy gods and wood-nymphs who dwell therein. The coda with its icy winds sweeping through the forest made us shiver.” On the Sibelius tone poem Tapiola. From a letter to the composer by Walter Damrosch, who conducted the premiere of that work in 1926.)
The cabin walls groan,
I step out, under articulate stars,
their wild canopy excites me,
those icy exclamations
make the black scroll sing,
and punctuate the night
with a dazzling syntax
that lets the heart speak in parables.
When something lumbers by in the darkness,
I retreat to my fireplace.
This is Canada.
We are an outpost of terror.
Mountains, granite ridges,
chill mornings, mist-shrouded
lakes, the bleak sun,
the slow turning of the endless day.
Marshes and moors,
the smell of mud and decay,
like the severed heads
of an ancient enemy.
What’s trivial in the human
he cast out–
and most of all our frenzy
to remake the world,
creation’s paradox and bane,
the junk piled high,
earth and space littered
with false dreams.
Implacable nature, in Tapio,
god of the forest.
by another name lurks
in these rough shaggy pines,
cedars and elders,
dark birches, like runic figures,
boundaries and portals of time,
of our deep hidden life,
to be entered only at twilight
or when the wind shrills
bleakly across the lakes,
the mind full of music
and what moves in the woods,
by cloven nature bound
to another earth.
In the drawing rooms of Europe
the sad waltzes ceased,
the sun swallowed up
by its own serpent tides,
as in his knotted glance
by Karsh, looking inward
to where creation stops
at the boundaries
At the end, endless silence.
Ambition burned out,
mind falls back to its source:
the drowned book’s spell
alive in rugged lines,
in fractal clouds and waves,
this globe’s solemn music–
while time flows unhurried
to its own desolation,
the great swans gather
on the lost lake.
Art inspires art, and sometimes not in the form you expect. The poem above is by Canadian author Mr Tom Henighan (born in Manhattan) who is also Professor Emeritus at the Carleton University of Ottawa, and “a very busy free-lance scholar and writer, with a special interest in Canadian culture, mythology, and popular culture.” Among his other eminent qualities is a tendency to “get jumpy if [he] can’t stay in touch with the natural world.” Mr Henighan is an active author and has an extensive publication history.
In the last few years beginning around 2008, in my gradual return to writing about Sibelius, I have had the immense honour and pleasure of becoming acquainted with Sibelius fans from around the world, including conductors, musicians, painters and now a writer. Tom left a kind comment on Dust of Hue here (which I have barely begun to do justice in terms of a reply, and in subsequent emails, he sent me this Sibelius-inspired poem – essentially an act of kindred sharing.)
You have to know something about Sibelius to get the references, Tom explained. And indeed that was definitely the case. Of forests, mountains, stars, the slow turning of endless time, endless silence – the words and images include many that I have used in near poetic futility to capture the essence of Sibelius’ music in words. It made me eager to share with you, fellow Sibelians. About the poem, Tom wrote:
“I was sitting outside my cottage one dark-bright summer night, a cottage that’s on a very quiet lake next to the huge provincial park Papineau-Labelle in Quebec. I was listening to Sibelius, probably Tapiola as I recall, and I remembered how similar to the Canadian landscape the landscape of Finland looks, at least in photographs…”
And that’s how it often begins for us Sibelians. We find ourselves in the midst of nature, almost always quiet nature. And then we hear – sometimes imagine – his music. Sibelius himself often composed in silence. But for us, “nature music” isn’t always the romanticized, sentimental lyric tune written to admire her beauty. For us, Sibelius casts a spell as binding as it is often fearsome – “the mystery of nature in the dark woods”, as Tom puts it, where wood sprites weave magic secrets.
… and I thought how beautiful and peaceful that night was, but also, in a way “terrifying”–as wild, sublime nature sometimes is. So I began to fuse my experience of nature in Sibelius’ wonderful sound-landscapes with my immediate experience of the sublime natural setting all around me.
Tom mentions Yousuf Karsh, the celebrated photographer responsible for a handful of the noblest photographs of Jean Sibelius, among other famous portraits. He refers especially to the one showing Sibelius in deep meditation (pictured above). “I imagine him contemplating “creation” –the natural world–and his own shackled powers” – Sibelius locked away his magic for the last three decades of his life, Prospero-like.
At the end, endless silence. Readers from either today or at the Inkpot will know how often I say Sibelius’ music often ends in a “vast silence” you dare not disturb; and that in the inexorable flow of his music, time often feels timeless. Time indeed “flows unhurried to its own desolation.”
I try to evoke the indifference of time that rolls everything into oblivion but dissipates itself in so doing, and at that point I bring in Sibelius’ beloved swans, in some lost dimension, poised for a kind of rebirth, signaling the perennial unfolding of nature and its mysterious qualities (and of course the power of Sibelius’ music to announce such transformations and celebrate them.)
Tom calls his final stanza, “enigmatic” – but Tom, I want you to know that for me, it rang – it glowed – with clarity. In it, I hear the endless silence of the Seventh Symphony’s post-conclusion. I see the composer letting go of his final spell, not yet fully cast, and receding back into his mysterious wellspring of creation. His book of creation purposefully destroyed, yet his music – the ancestral DNA of the Eighth Symphony, still alive, soaring in the clouds and waves of its predecessors, flowing unhurried as time. Desolation, “logical collapse”, the final breaths of Tapiola, the Fourth Symphony. The final image, the great swans of his Fifth Symphony, gathering on the lost lake, invokes the nostalgia and heartache Sibelius spoke of in the birth of this symphony. They settle gently in the still waters, knowingly, paying silent homage.
Before 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.
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.
* * * * *
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.
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.
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.
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.