Echoes of the Forest God

Ten days ago in the middle of March I received an email from Gerry Henkel, the Editor of New World Finn, a quarterly journal on Finnish culture in the New World. The approximately 30-page journal features Finnish newsmakers, musicians, artists, writers and more, in North America. A downloadable sample is available on the website, as well as instructions for submissions and subscriptions.

To my pleasant surprise, Gerry asked for permission to reproduce my 13-year-old article on Tapiola, which I published on Earth Day (April 22) 1999. Over the last 13 years, this article has attracted the most number of comments among all my Sibelius articles. While I’ve always considered it one of my good pieces of writing, I never thought of it as something that would attract widespread attention or anything. It was after all, about a piece that is decidedly quite advanced listening, Sibelius’ most sophisticated essay in tone painting – his final published word in symphonic thinking. Indeed, his “9th” Symphony.

I wrote the piece when great swaths of forests were being burned in a nearby country. This affected me deeply and greatly influenced my thoughts on the essay, about how mankind has seemingly forgotten we are not a separate thing from nature. Tapiola illustrates this relationship to spine-tingling, soul-searing effect.

Mr Henkel wrote to me again just this morning to show me a post made by a reader of New World Finn, Markki Mungerin of Cloquet River Press, who makes mention of my essay in his post “A Wonderful Piece of Music“. Thank you, Mr Mungerin. He has picked out a Tapiola music video from YouTube (made by berrik500) to introduce his readers to the work.  The complete tone poem can be heard here.

The performance is conducted by Neeme Järvi, with film footage from Christopher Nupen’s film “Jean Sibelius – The Early Years, Maturity and Silence”. It so happens that I watched this video a month ago and left a comment for the creator myself – so once again, Tapio works to keep us connected.

I am thoroughly humbled and very happy by the fact that something I wrote so long ago still has the capacity to spread and advance the musical thinking of Jean Sibelius. I never thought this far when I wrote in 1999. I never thought that a piece of music this dark, this “supernatural”, this advanced, could enthrall fresh listeners. The fact that it does is testimony to Sibelius’ magical power to reach deep into our humanity, and find the threads of a common force – our spiritual link with nature – to bind us across time, space and culture. I am but a wisp singing the song of my forest gods, a tiny thread of light among the magic secrets of wood sprites in the gloom. I have shared the mysterious spell once 13 years ago, and it thrills me that the enchantment continues to echo.

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.

A Korean Greeting from Way Back

A couple of days ago I received a politely penned email from a Korean.

My name is Jinho Kim, A Korean concert pianist who gave performances of Tchaikovsky piano concerto with SSO in 2001…

What a pleasant surprise! It turned out to be a pianist I watched and reviewed all the way back at the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, on 21st April 2001, more than 9 years ago. The review is still at the Inkpot.

Continue reading A Korean Greeting from Way Back

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

And thus, I begin again

I am the Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase, and I’m back.

The “Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase” was a pseudonym I used back at The Flying Inkpot in the years 1997-2002, when I was writing on Sibelius or other composers of the Nordic Countries. Back then, I felt that this “Chia Han-Leon” was writing way too many articles on the site compared to the other writers, and I just felt bad about it. So purely for fun, I started to use this nickname, partly because it felt more comfortable – Sibelius Nutcase championing Sibelius. Continue reading And thus, I begin again

「20th Century Composers: Jean Sibelius」 by Guy Rickards

J E A N · S I B E L I U S

Phaidon · 20TH CENTURY COMPOSERS Series · by GUY RICKARDS

PHAIDON PRESS Limited
ISBN-10: 0714847763 / ISBN-13: 978-0714847764

soft-hard cover, 240 pages, 22cm x 15.6cm
contains 100 b&w illustrations
This edition 23 Apr 2007. First published October 1997

An original review by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase

Reading this book was above all a learning experience. First it was very very sobering – for its lucid account of the financial/material excesses and terrible debts of Jean Sibelius, as well as his strained but somehow unbreakable relationship with his wife, Aino, to whom he was married for over 60 years.

And yet it subtly brings to light the essentially “nature” genius that is Finland’s greatest composer. Rickards does not talk so much about Sibelius’ music (which to the unfamiliar reader, would perhaps be a flaw in the book), but writes around them, showing the reader the overall environment which surrounds Sibelius and his works. The result is often like a sudden realization of something you already know. A stone looks different when it is seen in a desert, in a river, or among the mountains.

I was stirred by Rickard’s account of Sibelius’ struggle with the premiere of the Kullervo Symphony, of how the then 32-year old composer employed the “sheer force of his will” to unify the multi-cultural group of German musicians and a choir of Finns and Swedes that was to perform it. The churning maelstrom of the music seems to speak of this. In fact, Rickards, as in his careful account of Sibelius’ long struggle with the Fifth Symphony, makes you want to hear the music again. The author’s selection of quotations with regards to Sibelius’ compositional aesthetics really hit home. On the title-page of Chapter 6, aptly called “The Forging of Thor’s Hammer” (a reference to the Fifth’s “Swan Hymn”), the following quotation is printed:

“My symphonies were a terrible struggle. But now they are as they must be.”

 

Phaidon Press - Jean Sibelius by Guy Rickards
Original edition cover (1997)

Sibelius’ pursuit of organic unity, of “inner logic”, is unobtrusively taught to the reader. There are powerful descriptions of the composer’s near mystical kinship with nature. Sibelius recounted that at the moment he finished the final version of the Fifth Symphony (which he revised four times in four years), twelve white swans settled on the lake (outside his house), and then circled the house three times before flying off – spine-tingling stuff. Again, my impression is that Rickards lets the power of such imagery demonstrate itself. In the same way, Sibelius’ music demonstrates its musical material for itself.

Like the composer, the author of this book recognizes himself as a middleman. Sibelius once called himself the composer of a jigsaw puzzle that dropped from heaven. He only (re)constructed that which already existed. Likewise, Rickards is a faithful story-teller of Sibelius’ life, not seeming to do more than the pieces demanded. Both therefore act as the artist who allows the art to speak for itself.

Like this inner logic, I found myself connecting the things Rickards writes about. He makes a number of attempts to defend Sibelius’ rather strange habit of composing salon pieces next to symphonic masterpieces. One of these is the key quote regarding the Sixth Symphony, that each symphony is a “phase in one’s inner life.” In this, the inevitability of change (as excruciatingly shown via the composer’s intense self-criticism and rampant revision of his works) and the recognition of ‘permanency’ (“phase”) is somehow explained.

It’s just so difficult to explain. I’ve always known this quote, but after reading this book, I finally understood what it meant, and yet I am unable to explain it. Not surprisingly, this is the same with nature and with Sibelius’ music. Things you “understand” but cannot explain. And so, it was with genuine pleasure and high spirits that I read the penultimate sentence of the Epilogue:

“His music survived the vicissitudes of fashion across a century and has still been found to contain within it the seeds for the future…”

 

Something which I have always believed. It is something which I seem to know, to feel; in saying this, Rickards, whom I do not know, echoes my sentiments, and makes me feel that thing which I have always felt when conversing with fellow Sibelius fans: natural, unspoken kinship of the type which we infrequently realize we all share. This, ultimately, is the same relationship we embrace with Mother Nature.