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Sibelius Unfound 

Esa-Pekka Salonen wraps up “Sibelius Unbound”

Wednesday, Oct 31 2007
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The Glorious Fourth

The six blows of Thor’s hammer — the metaphor is Donald Tovey’s, not mine — resounded through Disney Hall on Friday night, and then we were done with Sibelius. Esa-Pekka Salonen had chosen the Fifth Symphony to end his three weeks of “Sibelius Unbound”: all seven symphonies, most of the tone poems, a single shard from the theatrical scores, not the violin concerto . . . I experienced no epiphanies, unless you count the Sixth Symphony, which I had never heard before in live performance, and the Third, which I still haven’t heard live, having made the unwise decision to journey to San Francisco for Philip Glass’ new opera, about which more later. (I atoned by finally unwrapping my disc of that symphony, and wishing that I hadn’t. What a weak work!)

It’s easier for me to write about music close to my heart than it is the music I deplore. I came to these concerts in the firm belief that if anyone could turn around my long-standing dislike of these symphonies, it would be Salonen and our orchestra, with the magnificent clarity of their playing in that hall and with Salonen’s own newly acquired eagerness to plead the cause of his musical patrimony. (In our first interview here, he was all for dismissing the Sibelius heritage as an albatross.)

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Instead, I heard the grand, rolling tune in the finale of the Second Symphony, almost a second national anthem after Finlandia, obscured through the buzz of strings. I heard the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies as almost nothing but buzz, with, in the Sixth, its maddening capriciousness in chopping off a promising idea, or even a whole movement, where logic might ordain a proper continuation. The Philharmonic’s program notes dub this work the “Cinderella” of the symphonies; might not “Rumpelstilskin” be more appropriate?

Then there is the Fourth Symphony, lean and hungry. I suppose it is some kind of perversion to find this the most satisfactory work of the seven, but hear me out. First, it sounds the best; its relatively spare orchestration allows everything to be heard, loud and clear. That “everything,” furthermore, I find exceptionally attractive, stirring in a way that I don’t often find in Sibelius. One of many instances is that magnificent brass tune that bursts out, after a long accumulative process, to cap the slow movement, followed immediately by wisps of melody that quickly come together as the theme of the finale. On my critics’ bookshelf, I find little writing about the Fourth Symphony, but I like this, from Constant Lambert: “The work as a whole is notable for its intensity of mood, its grim austerity of color and its elliptical compactness of form, qualities in no way popular with the multitude and in 1912 definitely out of fashion with so-called advanced composers.”

So be it; you have to work hard to be moved by this grim, A-minor symphony. I am, and I find it worth the effort. Those receding mezzoforte chords that end it, in bristling, orchestral, that’s-all-there-is tones, are among the most gripping musical sounds I know.

Old School Ties

Came also the youthful orchestra from Salonen’s alma mater, the Sibelius Academy, with members ages 18 to 26, lively, attractive and just as good as the previous installment I’d heard in Carnegie Hall about 10 years ago. They landed with a full program: a brief Chorale by Magnus Lindberg — a variation on Bach’s “Es ist genug” — Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto with soloist Juho Pohjonen, 26, and Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite of four tone poems. Salonen conducted. Everything came off capitally; the young Pohjonen — though not so young as reported in the Times — is the latest in a long dynasty of steely-fingered Northerners, and excellent of the breed.

Also adjunct to the series was an evening by the Philharmonic’s Chamber Music Society, with an evening perhaps somewhat more forgettable. Looming largest among the dispensables was the G-minor Quartet by Edvard Grieg, music for tea parties to be played behind potted palms, excruciatingly long-winded. Sibelius’ one quartet was also played; I had planned to exculpate it as a juvenile work until I learned that it dates from between the Third and Fourth symphonies. Shorter and infinitely more amusing works by Carl Nielsen and Aulis Sallinen filled out the program, all neatly played by Philharmonic members.

Glass, Darkly

Something analogous to a death wish draws me over long distances to Philip Glass operas: the Columbus opera at the Met, a Bob Wilson CIVIL warS segment in Rome, a Doris Lessing sci-fi piece in Houston and now Appomattox at the San Francisco Opera. As you can glean from the title, this latest work concerns the ending of our Civil War, the meeting of the generals at the Virginia town of Appomattox Court House and Robert E. Lee’s surrender to U.S. Grant. If you need to bone up, there is James Thurber’s “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox,” which tells approximately the same story. Approximately, that is.

Christopher Hampton wrote the libretto, which covers considerable ground before and after the surrender: the last days of combat, some of it brutal, the virtual rape of Richmond by Grant’s army, racist behavior, including some raunchy speechifying against blacks up to the present time. Riccardo Hernandez designed the sets, among them a striking angled ramp that divided the stage and allowed director Robert Woodruff some spectacular action during the Richmond scenes. Glass’ music rose to that occasion too, with snarling dark winds and percussion. Most of the time, however, it was pretty much just another Philip Glass score: noodle noodle. You wonder why I went. So do I.

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