Thursday, March 27, 2014

Breathtaking Sibelius

Jean Sibelius 1913 (Wikipedia)
My first experience with Jean Sibelius' music was in my childhood thanks to my mother and her love for his Finlandia.  That was the only piece, though.  Many years later, when I was working for the Minnesota Orchestra, they hosted the London Philharmonic on tour with conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, and they performed Sibelius' Second Symphony.  It was love at first hearing for me.  That symphony piqued my interest in his other symphonies, seven in all, and I found that some were more accessible than others.  This morning at Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis, Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra celebrated their Grammy Award by performing the two Sibelius symphonies on their award-winning CD, the Fourth and the First.

It's not often that a music performance leaves me speechless, so immersed in the sound that my mind is filled with it and nothing else.  So it was this morning.  The sound experience of this music played by this orchestra under this conductor's direction was simply breathtaking.  A man I met afterward, a friend of a friend, described it as "muscular playing."  Yes, it was that.  There is a power in this partnership that I've never seen before here or anywhere.  Add to that the electric energy from the audience which was ecstatic to have Osmo Vanska back on the podium leading their orchestra and you have a unique, nearly overwhelming experience.  We have also the news that Mr. Vanska is currently in negotiations to return as the MO's Music Director, so there was also a hopeful jubilation.

The concert began with the musicians coming onstage all at once.  I love that they've continued to do this.  The audience leaped to its feet and cheered when Mr. Vanska strode onstage.  He usually doesn't spend much time on initial bows, but this time he took a moment to acknowledge the love energy flowing from the audience.  Then, with a chop of his baton, both the orchestra and the audience sat down to begin -- the former to play, the latter to listen.  The opening tritone of the Sibelius Fourth Symphony sets an ominous and dark tone for this symphony.  Yes, it's dark.  But when I listen to it, I think of being in a small boat on a roiling ocean, knowing that there are strong currents beneath the surface as well as wind coursing through the air above.  Scott Chamberlain, in his blog post Sibelius Symphonies: A Preview, described this music as "questioning" and I agree.  It is a sonic landscape of uncertainty, anxiety, and at the end of the final movement, perhaps, of hope.  The music ebbs and flows, rises and drops, swirls, crests, and thunders.  The musicians and Mr. Vanska were all of the same mind this morning, and played as if one person.

And the music seeped into my body and my mind from the first note.  It's not happy music by any means, but it is serious and incredibly intense in that seriousness.  Uncertainty, after all, is the darkest of abysses under the ocean of sound roiling above.  The clarity of that sound -- the precision of the playing -- the dynamics' breadth -- the transparency of phrases and chords -- the muscularity of the power of conviction and passion driving that sound -- this is all the Minnesota Orchestra with Mr. Vanska.  Yes, the volume rose to an incredible height like a tsunami wave about to break, but at the same time, I felt like I heard every single instrument in that moment.  The last movement arrives as a burst of sunshine through the clouds glittering on the ocean's waves and froth.  No, the ocean hasn't gone away.  It's still there.  But there are moments of light, perhaps ways to figure out a direction to shore.

Minnesota Orchestra (Photo: Greg Helgeson)

The second half was decidedly lighter but no less intense.  With Burt Hara, former Principal Clarinet, gone to the L. A. Philharmonic for good, who would play that lovely clarinet solo that introduces the First Symphony?  Easy.  Greg Williams, the Associate Principal, played it beautifully, absolutely beautifully.  The Sibelius First shows off a lot of the orchestra, individual players, but mostly its ensemble playing, its discipline and precision.  My mother would have loved this symphony (but not the Fourth) with its sweet melodies, lively rhythms, gregarious brass (and one tuba!) and the amazingly deep rumbling of the bass drum.  Mr. Vanska's conducting was more physical in this symphony, far more descriptive in his movements.

I was already open and primed to receive this music.  While the concert celebrated the CD of this same music, I can say with certainty that listening to the CD cannot even come close to hearing this music in live concert.  The spectacle of the orchestra on stage, string bows moving, brass flashing in the light, human beings leaning into the music while one man stands in front of them, appearing to be mad with music.  The sound surrounds you, above and below, to both sides, and flows into your ears, sometimes softly, sometimes gaspingly loud.  At times, my mind soared on the sound.  I found myself thinking only of what I was hearing, the phrasing, the melodic lines, the sforzandos played with clean precision, the quiet landings, how all the different timbres blend together in chords that create the open sound I associate as Sibelius' musical voice.

The symphony ends with two quiet notes.  Mr. Vanska kept talking with the musicians after the cut-off then turned around with a flourish for them to stand with him.  The audience was already on its feet, shouting and applauding.  I had a feeling that no one wanted this concert to end, no one wanted Mr. Vanska to leave the stage -- we wanted them all to stay together forever.  They make such incredible music together.  Congratulations Minnesota Orchestra Musicians and Osmo Vanska!  What an extraordinary concert.  Well done.  Mr. Vanska took several bows, called out musicians who played solos, applauded the orchestra.  During one, his former assistant, Michael Pelton, came on stage carrying a gorgeous bouquet of red roses and cut between the first and second violins at the same time Mr. Vanska took the front route at the stage's edge to the stage door.  The audience started laughing.  Michael stopped and looked like he was shouting "Osmo!" and finally Mr. Vanska stopped, accepted the flowers and hugged Michael.  Another bow or two, and Mr. Vanska lay the flowers on the conductor's stand, picked up his baton, and conducted the last part of the First Symphony's final movement again.  So sweet.

Osmo Vanska conducting the MO

Wow.  And wow, wow, wow.  Musicians commented on how special the Orchestra Hall audience is, on how lively and enthusiastic they were for a Thursday morning Coffee Concert audience.  Hey, love is love, guys.  We love you.  We love that you now come onstage at the beginning all together.  We love that you come out to the lobby to talk with us before and after the concerts.  We love that Osmo Vanska, who looked totally exhausted, came out to the lobby after the concert and signed the Grammy-winning CD for folks who bought it, or any of the other CDs that he's made with the MO and were on sale.

There are two more performances of this Sibelius program: tomorrow night (also streamed live online at at Orchestra Hall and broadcast on Minnesota Pubic Radio, and Saturday night at Orchestra Hall.  As I re-read this post, I realize that my words barely approach what this concert experience was like.  Go.  Hear it for yourselves. 

Here's my request for the Minnesota Orchestral Association after this visit to Orchestra Hall: could you please return the overstuffed ottoman-like seats to the lobby or something like them so that there are places to sit in the lobby?  Right now, there's nothing.  For shame..... 

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