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Sibelius in Seattle

Jean Sibelius was born 150 years ago, and the Seattle Symphony celebrated with a series of concerts they called "Luminous Landscapes" in which they performed all of his symphonies, the violin concerto, the tone poem "Finlandia", and three chamber works. I believe there was other music of his performed as well, including some of his lieder after the concert I went to. I went to the performance of the final three symphonies, the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh. The Seventh has become one of my favorite pieces of music, and it is at least partly responsible for my recent focus on 20th century classical music.

I have a recording of all seven symphonies (along with the violin concerto and "Finlandia") by Leif Segerstam and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, so I've heard them all. (I also have other recordings of the Seventh and I think a couple of the others.) I wasn't sure how familiar I was with the Fifth and Sixth, and as it turned out the Fifth was only familiar in parts, which probably means I haven't listened to it much. Perhaps that's why I only liked parts of the performance of the Fifth. I especially liked the rousing finale. There was also an interesting swimming texture in the strings almost throughout the thing that sometimes put me into a strangely disoriented frame of mind, but that's probably just me. At one point I felt as though I was about to have an out-of-body experience, and I wasn't sure that would actually end well.

The Sixth on the other hand was familiar all the way through, and I liked it a lot better than the Fifth. In the program notes, guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard (a Dane) says that Sibelius worked on all three of these symphonies simultaneously. However, Paul Schiavo writes that the Sixth and Seventh "stand apart from his earlier symphonies. ... In general, they are more restrained, more introspective works. Setting aside heroic struggles and other typical symphonic postures, they explore sound worlds unlike those of Sibelius' earlier symphonies, or those imagined by any other composer." This may explain why I like the Sixth and Seventh the best of his symphonies. The performance of the Sixth completely nailed it, and the ending was so charged that the audience sat in stunned silence for some time before the applause began. I got up on my feet for that one.

The final chord of the Seventh was about the only thing I wasn't sure they got right in that performance, and that may have been because unlike the reaction to the Sixth, a few overly-excited people started clapping before the final chord had faded. Up until that point, I found the performance completely transporting, and that was in the face of some very high expectations indeed. I'm not good at understanding what goes into a classical musical performance, but I found Dausgaard's approach to Sibelius appropriately restrained. His body language was just as mesmerizing as the music. There was a sense of powerful forces being gently released in the Seventh. The music would swell into intense crescendos and then immediately fall into a delicate pianissimo, which only made the previous intensity feel more powerful in contrast. Really amazing expressiveness throughout, and they absolutely nailed the oceanic surging of the strings with the horns flowing in wavelike peals on top of the dark mass of underlying sound. I was sitting on the right side of the auditorium near the double basses, and the deep, pulsing sound of those magnificent instruments was incredible.

Well, I have to say I was practically in tears at the beauty of it. A lot of the audience, including the people on both sides of me, had clearly been to all of the Sibelius concerts, and the standing ovation at the end was ecstatic and tributary. Kudos to Thomas Dausgaard and the orchestra for a magical evening that was everything I'd hoped for.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 28th, 2015 09:13 pm (UTC)
As I remarked before, I'd have loved to have been there.

I think you convey the spirit of a good concert very nicely.

I find the Sixth a little elusive at times. Some performances seem to go off somewhere I can't follow, others don't. And I'm not sure how much I've really absorbed the Seventh. (The Fourth is supposed to be the tough Sibelius symphony, but I've never found that one difficult at all.) The Fifth, on the other hand, is old home week for me: after the Third and before the Second it's one of the ones I know best.
Mar. 28th, 2015 10:27 pm (UTC)
Thanks. I'd been trying to remember if it was the Fourth or Fifth that I'd heard were particularly difficult. I should work my way through that Segerstam set again.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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