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Sibelius and His World

by B.A. Nilsson on August 25, 2011

Bard College, Aug. 20
Bard SummerScape

Piia Kleemola


Bard College’s annual SummerScape festival presents an array of music and theater and other cultural events with the music end of things centered on a particular composer’s life and milieu. This year, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was celebrated.

Twelve musical programs and a number of panels and symposia were presented over the course of two weekends. It’s an enormous amount to take in, but if you do as I do and slice in for a day or two of events, it can be exhilarating.

My single visit took place last Sunday, and I want to give a sense of what it’s like from beginning to end.

It’s no complaint to note that from the start of the morning’s program it felt as if I’d come into something well in progress. As I had: Daniel M. Grimley, an Oxford University Sibelius scholar, introduced the program, which was titled “From the Nordic Folk.” He noted that this was yet another exploration of “a story being told throughout the festival,” a story of what defines folk art, centered on the invention of ritual and custom to create a sense of community.

Thus we were treated to two hours of miniatures, works by Scandinavian composers and some heavily influenced by Scandinavia. Leading the former was Norwegian Edvard Grieg, whose Slatter, Op. 72, is a set of dances transcribed from traditional tunes played on the hardanger fiddle, a native instrument that’s essentially a souped-up violin, enhanced sonically by sympathetic strings running under the fingerboard and aesthetically by inlay and rosemaling.

Piia Kleemola, an amazing performer who specializes in Scandinavian and Irish fiddle tunes, demonstrated the hardanger sound. Although she used a regular violin, the layers of double-stops, drones and trills was clearly conveyed, and Grieg’s versions—played beautifully by pianist Orion Weiss—were shown to be all the more inspired. Kleemola also played, and in one instance, sang (such a gorgeous, unaffected voice!) characteristic versions of three of the songs that inspired a setting of six by Sibelius, which then were played by pianist Anna Polonsky.

Folksong harvesting from Hungary and Poland was represented by works by Bartók and Szymanowski, respectively, while Percy Grainger’s Scandinavian Suite was the charming work of a polymathic polyglot, three movements of which were excellently played by cellist Sophie Shao and pianist Pei-Yao Wang.

Pack a lunch. You’ll get about an hour for it, and picnic tables are hidden here and there on the handsome campus.

Where Grimley’s commentary ran throughout the morning event, Veijo Murtomäki, a professor of music history at Finland’s Sibelius Academy, introduced the afternoon program with a single pre-concert talk the substance of which was occluded by his heavy accent. But the program itself featured Sibelius’s String Quartet in D Minor, subtitled “Intimate Voices,” a piece that begins with a runic dialogue between violin and cello, that pays tribute to the Kalevala, a hugely influential 19th-century collection of Karelian rune songs that describe a mythology that heavily influenced many of that composer’s works. The Daedalus Quartet gave a masterful performance.

Works by three Finnish near-coevals of Sibelius also were performed: A six-song cycle by Leevi Madetoja titled Syksy (“Autumn”), settings of melancholy texts by Hilja Onerva, the composer’s wife. Soprano Marguerite Krull gave an affecting, passionate voice to these short pieces with long melodic lines but spare melodic material except for a touch of Puccini-like fervor here and there. Pianist Polonsky was the superb accompanist.

Aarre Merikanto’s 1924 Concerto for Violin, Clarinet and Horn with String Sextet is a crunchy, episodic piece whose parts never quite added up to a convincing whole, while the String Trio, Op. 133, by Erkki Melartin carried the flavor of a similar work written a quarter-century earlier by Ernst von Dohnanyi, and was charming in its effervescence. Kudos to violinist Carmit Zori, violist Beth Guterman, and cellist Shao.

With over three hours before the start of the next program, it was a good time to duck into nearby Tivoli to see what’s new on the restaurant scene and to check out the stock at Village Books on Broadway, where I’ve found a few bargains over the years.

The evening events move from Olin Hall, in one of the academic buildings, to the Sosnoff Theater in the impressive Richard B. Fisher Center. SUNY Geneseo’s Anne-Marie Reynolds gave a breathless talk on “The Heritage of Symbolism” to introduce the orchestral works to follow, mostly, I suspect, as a way of preparing the crowd (and the place was packed!) for Sibelius’s unforgiving Symphony No. 4, the least accessible of his seven symphonies, a work that has revealed to me whatever I’ve so far gained only through repeated listening.

So it was a treat to hear a full-throated reading by the American Symphony Orchestra under Leon Botstein, who glories in bossy, brassy works. Even the concert opener, Sibelius’s delicate “Swan of Tuonela,” seemed bigger than usual, although Melanie Feld’s playing of the celebrated English horn part was magnificent.

By contrast, Väinö Raitio’s Joutsenet (“The Swans”) painted its subject with a palette influenced on which Sibelius was influenced by Scriabin—lush, a bit sardonic, colored by celeste.

Sibelius’s The Oceanides was written not long after the fourth symphony, but the tone poem’s subject matter (the oceanic spirits of Greek myth) give the 10-minute piece a characteristic charm, and its big, big climax affirmed that it’s more about mood than melody.

Carl Nielsen was as revered by Denmark as Sibelius was in Finland, a good enough reason to finish with the former’s Symphony No. 3. But there was a bonus in comparing it to Sibelius’s fourth, as both were written in 1911 and seem to reflect some questions about nationalism, never mind whatever symbolism informs them.

The Nielsen symphony is an extroverted work, its first movement animated a rhythmic pulse with witty effects. The unashamedly lyrical second movement adds a vocalise by offstage soprano and baritone (Yulia Van Doren and Tyler Duncan, unseen until their bows) and a brilliant use of winds. A characteristic allegretto, with an oboe feature, leads to a slam-bang final movement in which a six-note figure is teased and tortured by all of the forces, brass at the forefront. And this is one hell of a brass section, which suits the Botstein style.

Sibelius was an innovator who lived to see his work fall completely out of favor with the academics who anointed themselves the classical music tastemakers in the post-World War I era. Now that we once again can openly declare ourselves fans of his music, it’s reassuring to see that it has returned to Academy, as P.G. Wodehouse would have said, with bells on.