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Letter From Los Angeles

November 6, 2007

When Jean Sibelius died in 1957, he had not completed a major work since the late 1920s. Nonetheless, his music dominated the Finnish musical scene until the coming of serialism and modernism around the time of his passing. Even the generation of Finnish composers born in the 1950s felt a need to reject him: When Esa-Pekka Salonen, born in 1958, announced the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Sibelius festival, he confessed that he had come to Sibelius late in life, and that in his youth he had avoided the older composer.
Rejection has now turned to acceptance. Salonen and the Philharmonic presented all of the composer's symphonies and sundry other works in a splendid series of concerts, titled "Sibelius Unbound," at Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall October 12-26. Salonen programmed this festival not only for the sake of Sibelius' music, but also to give Sibelius a context in the world of 21st-century music. To that end, "Sibelius Unbound" included work by Salonen himself, a new work by the American composer Steven Stucky, and a string quartet by Aulis Sallinen, another Finn, as well as works by Carl Nielsen and Edvard Grieg.

Salonen and the orchestra are currently presenting a nearly identical series of concerts at London's Barbican. The English audience also has a chance to hear Kaija Saariaho's song cycle, Quartre Instants (Four Moments), sung by Karita Mattila.
Saariaho Unbuttoned
While the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group's concert at Disney on October 9 wasn't officially part of the Sibelius festival, it might as well have been, since it included three works by the Finnish Saariaho. Born in 1952, Saariaho has lived in France for many years and is closely associated with the so-called spectralist school of composition. Her spiky, emotionally searing music sometimes uses spectralist devices such as gradual shifts of timbre to provide structure, but seems a great distance from, for example, Gérard Grisey's slow-moving Les Espaces Acoustiques (Acoustic spaces) from the 1970s.

The largest-scale work on the concert was Graal Théâtre (Grail Theater), a violin concerto that contrasts the holy and spiritual with the profane and theatrical, performed here in its chamber reduction (1997). Jennifer Koh gave a bravura performance of this tough-minded and dense work, which sounds as though the violinist needs 15 fingers to play all the double-stops, harmonics, and other effects. Lionel Bringuier, assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted with an unusually liquid and expressive beat.

In Saariaho's Six Japanese Gardens (1993) for percussion and electronics, percussionist Steven Schick gloried in the variety of these miniatures and the vast number of instruments for which they're scored. Catherine Ransome Karoly gave a marvelous performance of the haunting NoaNoa (1992), for flute and electronics. Both works were accompanied by "synchronized video installations" by Jean Baptiste Barriè, which, sadly, proved trite and distracting. Luigi Dallapiccola's Piccola musica notturna (Little night music, 1954), gentle, melodic and serialist, rounded out the program.
Music Pared Down to Its Mystery
In his new book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross of The New Yorker devotes a chapter to Sibelius. He notes that between the World Wars, Sibelius "became something like a pop-culture phenomenon." Ross provides reasons Sibelius became so famous in the United States, most of which are not about the music itself, but about the critical culture surrounding the music. And after hearing five of the symphonies, a couple of tone poems, and Sibelius' only mature string quartet in close proximity to each other, it's hard to understand from where the musical mass appeal could originate. These works are as mysterious as they are beautiful, and sometimes, as in the Fourth Symphony and the string quartet, so enigmatic as to seem alienated from normal life.

The symphonies are sui generis in form, equally distant from the familiar, tight structures of Brahms and Beethoven and the rambling, sprawling works of Sibelius' contemporary Mahler. His orchestral textures are varied, within the limits of an orchestra that is considerably smaller than those Mahler employed. But only Sibelius will strip the orchestra to bare bones, as in the opening of the First Symphony, where a single clarinet plays a long, melancholy theme accompanied only by the timpani. Expansive triumphal moments may have the despairing sarcasm of Shostakovich, of all composers.

Two contemporary works, by Salonen and Stucky, illustrated the long reach of Sibelius' musical influence. The concerts included Salonen's Wing on Wing and the premiere of Stucky's colorful and exciting Radical Light, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic for this festival. Stucky, who is more or less composer-in-residence at the Philharmonic, says in the program notes that Sibelius has long been an influence on his music.

In Radical Light, that influence is most audible in the sonority of the threshing, divided strings toward the end of the piece. Stucky says that the direct influence is the structure of the one-movement Seventh Symphony. Radical Light is considerably shorter than that work, but builds organically to a spectacular climax of blazing brass and mad string figuration.
Music of the Elements
Wing on Wing, written for the inauguration of the Disney Hall, shared a program with Finlandia and Sibelius' Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43. Wing on Wing, a fantasy of sorts on themes of wind and water, touches on sundry 20th-century musical styles over its 25 minutes. The work contains notable allusions to Debussy's Sirens and to Stravinsky's ballets. On the electronic tape that's part of the orchestration, Salonen incorporated, charmingly, both the noises made by a fish (a plainfin midshipman) and the voice of architect Frank Gehry, the genius who designed Disney Hall. Anu Komsi and Stacey Tappan sang the wordless coloratura soprano parts from various locations in the hall with energy, beauty of tone, and impressively accurate intonation.

The two sopranos displayed considerable aplomb in the timing of those changes of location, which had to be managed carefully, and inadvertently drew attention to the acoustical marvel that is Disney Hall. As Komsi and Tappan retreated up the stairs from their second location, facing each other across the hall in the orchestra west and orchestra east sections, their footsteps were quietly, yet clearly, audible from my seat in the center terrace.

Clarity and astonishingly beautiful sound are typical of Disney Hall, whether five instruments or 100 are playing, regardless of dynamic levels, and, apparently, regardless of where a listener sits. The hall never muddies the sound, and has tremendous bass response: You can feel a bass-section pizzicato vibrating from your feet to the top of your head. All this, and the hall is physically beautiful, as well, from the warmth of the undulating wooden surfaces to the multiple color combinations of the seats' upholstery — designed by Gehry — to the grandeur of the pipe organ, which looks like it's exploding into the hall.
Inhabiting Sibelius’ Shadow World
Salonen's and Stucky's pieces were only two of the highlights of those concerts I was able to hear. Among the Sibelius symphonies, the Fourth (in A minor, Op. 63, 1911) was a triumph of understatement. Salonen brought to his interpretation of the piece the kind of hesitancy and uncertainty that Sibelius evidently felt at the time the symphony was composed. "It's his most private, complex, and least understood symphony," Salonen says in his introductory comments. Indeed. The Seventh (in C major, Op. 105, 1924) appeared on the same program — along with Radical Light — and made a fine conclusion, its confidence and compact structure a marked contrast to the Fourth.

Salonen and the orchestra were perhaps at their best in the concert pairing the Third and First Symphonies. The Third (in C major, Op. 52, 1907) is remarkable for its doom-haunted second movement — which features an extraordinary passage for multiple solo cellos, extensive pizzicato, and alternating duple and triple meters — and for the sense of harmonic stasis that sets into the third movement. The First (in E minor, Op. 39, 1898) received a superb performance, from Michele Zukovsky's magnificent account of the opening clarinet solo to the frenzied Tchaikovskian outbursts of the last movement, which handily earned a standing ovation.

Between orchestral concerts, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Chamber Music Society put on a concert of string quartets by Sibelius, Sallinen, and Grieg, along with Nielsen's quirky Serenata in vano for clarinet, bassoon, horn, cello, and bass. The Sibelius got a stiff and uncomfortable-sounding performance. Perhaps it was a bit under-rehearsed, or perhaps the piece just sounds difficult. SFCV reviewer David Bratman described a performance of it by the Emerson Quartet as "dry and academic."

Sallinen, a composer entirely new to me, has written both tonal and modernist music. On the evidence of his String Quartet No. 3, "Some Aspects of Peltoniemi Hintrik's Funeral March" (1969), he is a composer of formidable strengths. The quartet, a theme and variations on a traditional Finnish fiddle tune, is a captivating trip through many compositional styles and instrumental techniques. The concert closed with a marvelously bold, high-energy performance of the Grieg quartet, a large-scale work that sounds like it could be played successfully by a string orchestra. Violinists Johnny Lee and David Chernyavsky, violist Dana Hansen, and cellist Jason Lippman neatly kept their balance in a work that alternates between high art and salon music, giving it a most persuasive reading.

I wish I could report that this great series sold out, but I saw a surprising number of empty seats at each of the "Sibelius Unbound" concerts. A top-notch orchestra and conductor, beautiful music performed in a great concert hall — what more could an audience want?

Lisa Hirsch is a technical writer. She studied music at Brandeis and Stony Brook, and blogs about classical music and opera at Iron Tongue of Midnight.