Archived Issue : April 2005
Welcome to the very
first issue of Sibelius & Such! Written by
Written by Simon Boswell
It's shameful to admit that I've waited five years to experience the extraordinary acoustics in Lahti's Sibelius Hall, but the concert of Russian ballet music I attended there on March 4th was a real ear-opener.
Lahti (a thriving entrepreneur town with a population of 100,000) lies 65 miles north of Helsinki -- an hour's drive up the motorway. Finland's ski-jumping capital, it is also the home of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, a highly professional and much recorded orchestra renowned, among other things, for its striking Sibelius performances under the baton of Osmo Vänskä. The orchestra's home performance base (and the subject of this article) is a phenomenon in its own right. . .
The Sibelius Hall, which lies on the shore of Lake Vesijärvi, was inaugurated in March 2000. It's the only concert & congress centre in the world constructed exclusively of wood -- although within a protective shell of glass. Its main hall can accommodate a concert or conference audience of 1,250 persons. But the building also features a reception lobby with a restaurant, a congress wing, and the Forest Hall -- a high-ceilinged exhibition and banqueting space shot through vertically with nine massive pylons of laminated timber. A further interesting feature of the architecture is the incorporation, at the entrance end, of a pre-existing, century-old redbrick industrial building known as The Carpentry Factory.
The March 4th concert kicked off with an exhilarating excerpt from Stravinsky's Firebird, and included a suite from Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet, as well as various items by Tchaikovsky and Khachaturian. The event had rather a gala atmosphere, with amusing spoken introductions provided for each piece by Minna Lindgren of the Finnish Broadcasting Company.
I wouldn't claim -- at least since childhood -- to being a major enthusiast of Tchaikovsky's symphonic music. I greatly admire his Serenade for Strings: a tautly constructed masterpiece abundant with flowing lyricism and convincing, sometimes rhythmically exciting counterpoint. But, when faced with the demands of the symphonic form, Tchaikovsky seems to lose his way. There's still plenty of lyricism, certainly, but his structural design and orchestration are sketchy; and, all too often, he veers towards the bombastic with an overuse of heavy brass and clashing cymbals. His ballet music is another matter. The shorter dance forms favour Tchaikovsky's natural talent for melodic and colouristic invention. Even so, never before have I heard the Swan Lake Suite as I did at the Lahti concert. My respect for Tchaikovsky's orchestration skills rose several notches -- an insight for which I'm grateful. The reasons for this new appraisal were twofold: firstly, the skill, precision and expressiveness of the performance by the Lahti SO (with masterful steering from the British guest conductor, David Angus); secondly, the richness and clarity of the acoustics.
The concert hall has been designed acoustically in a "shoe box" form -- although, to the casual eye, the performing and audience area (including lower and upper circles) appears oval-shaped. The hall's acoustic parameters can be significantly adjusted by means of echo chambers that are concealed behind the wooden wall paneling and which are opened or closed with irregularly positioned baffles. Another striking innovation is an enormous flat acoustic wooden canopy (tilted at a slight angle from the horizontal towards the auditorium) that hangs above the stage and which can be raised or lowered -- the highest positions for rock concerts, the lowest for chamber music ensembles. This barrage of acoustic control features is the work of Russell Johnson, the famed acoustic designer from New York's Artec Consultants, and the man responsible for other such successes as Birmingham's Symphony Hall in the UK and Lucerne's Festival Hall in Switzerland.
But what of the results for music lovers sitting in the Sibelius Hall audience? I can only give my personal reaction to the March 4th concert: I'm hard pressed to remember a more thrilling aural experience in a live orchestral setting. . . Every instrumental section -- almost every instrument -- could be heard individually; you needed only to home in on the one of your choice. The sound in general had what I would have to describe as an electrostatic and very tactile quality. The aura of reverberation was exciting without in any way disturbing the clarity; and the orchestra, clearly aware of the acoustic possibilities, chiseled crisp-edged silences at the ends of sections or whole pieces, leaving the ear with a vibrant ringing as the sound died away. The full orchestral tutti was magnificent, and generated what was for me a strange and hitherto unknown 'grittiness' -- a sound texture course-grained and edgy -- which set my scalp hair prickling.
To sum up, if you've
not yet attended a concert at the Sibelius Hall, don't wait
as long as I did. Finland may be a distant location for some
of you reading this article, but the Lahti SO's September
Sibelius Festival could be a good excuse to make the
journey. I, for one, have already reserved tickets in the
middle of the first circle for September 10th's amazing
sequential performance of the Fifth, Sixth & Seventh
Symphonies. To hear these three masterpieces of western
civilization performed in a single concert by such an
orchestra and at such a venue is something no Sibelius lover
Meet a Finnish musician. . .
Spotlight: Meet a Finnish musician. . .
Petri Lehto (born 1959 in Rovaniemi, Finland) has had a colourful and multifaceted career. As a double bass player, he has performed with esteemed Finnish, US & UK orchestras, including the Finnish Radio SO, the Helsinki Philharmonic, the Des Moines & Dubuque SOs, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Hallé Orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and for many years with the Lahti SO. As a lyric 'spinto' tenor, he has sung in professional choral contexts (for example, at the Savonlinna opera festival) and as a tenor soloist with numerous orchestras across Finland; he has also been active as a music critic.
Q: How long have you
been playing with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra?
Q: How do you see your
present role in the orchestra?
Q: How would you
characterize the Lahti SO's approach and sound? What makes
it different from other orchestras?
Q: You recently
performed in New York. What kind of reception did you
Q: How do you see the
future of the Lahti Symphony?
Q: You've played with
other orchestras in the US and in Britain. Why did you
decide to return to your home country?
Q: In what ways does
the Finnish music scene differ from the others that you've
Q: Do you still have
Sibelius -- a Finnish Musician?
LECTURE: Sibelius -- a Finnish Musician?
Johan Julius Christian Sibelius was born on the 8th of December 1865, in Hämeenlinna. Johan, or Janne as his family and friends would always call him, was only two years old when his father, a regimental doctor, was struck down by typhus -- presumably contracted from one of his patients. Although Janne never knew his father, he appears to have inherited from him a kind-hearted, engaging character and a love of social gatherings. Janne could be lively and amusing, but there was a complementary dark side to his personality: an unpredictable moodiness or moroseness; a tendency to withdraw into a world of his own which others found disconcerting.
Apart from the untimely loss of his father, Janne was fortunate in his childhood. He grew up in a small and attractive provincial town, in the warm and loving embrace of a cultured middle-class household. The whole family was musical, especially on his mother's side, and they actively played chamber music together. Although clearly talented, Janne didn't exhibit the gifts of a child prodigy. His musical development would be slower than that of a Mozart or a Mendelssohn but nonetheless inexorable. At twenty years old, Janne dutifully followed his family-elders' wishes by entering the Faculty of Law at the University of Helsinki. After only two terms, he abandoned an academic career in favour of the Helsinki School of Music. His mother bowed to the inevitable with an apprehensive heart. How could she have known that, as a consequence, this very school would one day change its name to hers and become the Sibelius Academy.
Janne's ambition of becoming a professional violinist was painfully thwarted -- probably because of his late start... not taking formal lessons until the age of fourteen. But his talent for composition was spotted by Martin Wegelius, the director of the music school, and Janne's career was set on its proper course.
At this point, I should mention the composer's Uncle Johan, who was a sea captain by profession. In those days it was customary for such international travellers to adopt a French form of their name when abroad and, one day, Janne stumbled on a stack of old visiting cards bearing the name Jean Sibelius. The ring of this combination so impressed the younger Johan that he decided to follow his uncle's example.
I shall now ask you to explore with me a topic that I personally find of great interest: let us consider the concept of Sibelius, the Finnish composer...
His music is so Finnish. This is a statement one often hears, especially in the land of his birth so often that it seems to be a truism. But what exactly do people mean by this claim? Sibelius's music is so Finnish. It's very easy to feel sympathy for a Finn wishing to express an affinity with his or her own cultural heritage. I, myself, am deeply proud of the fact that I was born on the same island as William Shakespeare, and that the language he moulded into such extraordinary dramatic and evocative forms is also my own. No matter that Shakespeare's genius is separated from my mediocrity by a geographical distance in birthplace of one hundred miles and a temporal separation of about four hundred years. I feel a proprietary sense of oneness, of somehow being myself a part of his genius. Why then should I be surprised if, for example, a thirty-five-year-old systems engineer, working for Nokia in a present-day Helsinki that Sibelius would scarcely have recognized, takes comfort in associating himself with his own national giant of creative genius? Sibelius was indeed one of the great geniuses of Western musical civilization, and he was most certainly born a Finn. This doesn't however, in itself, help us to answer the question of what is really meant by the statement: Sibelius's music is so Finnish.
In what ways is his music Finnish? Wherein does this Finnishness lie? Is it a product of the musical culture into which he was born? Hardly... In 1865, the concert music tradition in Finland was mainstream European. Janne grew up in an environment of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms. There was no Finnish composer, past or present, who hadn't trained in and modelled himself on this predominantly Teutonic tradition. The same musical influences were paramount in Janne's formative years. He played many works of these masters with the family trio: consisting of himself, his brother and his sister. Should we then be calling Sibelius's music Austro-Germanic? No, let's withhold judgment for the time being and look elsewhere. Let's turn our attention to Finnish ethnic music.
Finland has a long tradition of folk music covering a wide range -- from the genial dances of the 'pelimanni' violinists to the grief-laden cries of the professional lamenters. So perhaps this is where Sibelius's Finnishness derives: from Finnish folk music. Unfortunately not! Sibelius isn't a nationalist composer in the way that could be claimed for such figures as Grieg, Smetana or Bartók. Incidentally, Bartók was a composer that Sibelius would, in later years, come to admire, so I'll take the Hungarian as an example... Bartók's music, although not relying directly on quotations from ethnic sources, is imbued with Hungarianness in its rhythms and scale structures. There is ample justification for calling his music Hungarian. In Sibelius's case, however, although the composer had a fair knowledge of the Karelian folk music tradition, relatively little seems to have found its way into his own work.
Sibelius himself denied any direct influence from Finnish folk melodies and wrote a rebuttal to anyone he discovered making such claims for his music. But can we not still reassure ourselves by considering the composer's fascination for the Kalevala, Finland's national epic poem? The titles of many of his pieces testify to it: The Kullervo Symphony, Lemminkäinen's Return, The Swan of Tuonela, Pohjola's Daughter, Luonnotar, Tapiola. Surely these literary sources of inspiration demonstrate the Finnishness of Sibelius's music? Well, if they do, by the same logic we are forced to declare that the incidental music he wrote for Maeterlinck's Pelleas et Melisande demonstrates Belgianness and the incidental music for Shakespeare's The Tempest demonstrates Englishness! We have clearly gone astray.
Of course, we might still resort to Sibelius's patriotism. Everyone knows that he composed Finlandia as a stirring thumb-on-the-nose at nearly a century of Czarist rule. Yes, that's true, as far as it goes. However, politics is politics and, although music can sometimes be drawn into the service of political creeds, music of itself does not, indeed cannot express political thoughts. Its language is of a totally different nature.
For now I must leave open the question of Sibelius's Finnishness. I shall, however, return to it in a later lecture. . .
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