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September 15, 2009

Music we've been missing (Part 10): Sibelius

Maybe I've just missed it somehow, but it seems to me that we haven't been hearing enough Sibelius.

Oh sure, the Violin Concerto comes around, as well it should; what wonderfully earthy, vital music that is. The first two, stirring symphonies are not too long out of the picture; they will surely never lose their place in the active repertoire. And, if we're lucky, we do get No. 5 and No. 7 once in a while.

But, quick -- think of the last time you went to a concert around here and found, say, Symphony No. 4 on the program. Or "Cassazione." I think it's odd that even "Finlandia," probably the best known of all Sibelius works, seems to be largely confined to radio station airplay these days -- although I hasten to add that the BSO has programmed it this season.

I'd be up for a Sibelius festival, with

all of the symphonies and a bunch of the tone poems, as well as some of those fabulous orchestral songs (I've said before that the great orchestral song repertoire, spanning so many great composers, has been grossly underserved locally). For a taste of the Sibelius we've been missing, here's the finale of the darkly beautiful Symphony No. 4 conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen; and a great example of Sibelius' vocal music, "Sav, Sav, Susa," sung by the supreme Jussi Bjorling :

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:02 AM | | Comments (7)


A definite second from here to the call for more Sibelius on US orchestra concert programs, besides the "greatest hits" already mentioned. I actually got to hear Sibelius 4 a few seasons back, but the last time the orchestra had performed Sibelius 4 was something like 32 years earlier.

The thing about Sibelius is that he's definitely "tonal" and "accessible" in that way, in that there is no "barbed wire" about his music. Yet it's not as obvious or contains immediately appealing surface "pizazz" like Tchaikovsky or Mahler. Sibelius makes one work to get his music, which may be a reason why he doesn't get programmed much. I understand that when he was alive, particularly in the UK and even in the US, he was exceptionally popular. You may remember the casual reference to Sibelius's music on some orchestra radio broadcast in the 1944 film Laura.

In addition, I've been lucky enough to hear Tapiola live as well, but I had to travel to get the Four Legends complete, besides The Swan of Tuonela, another on the Sibelius "greatest hits" list. It would be great to hear conductors besides the Finns (Vanska et al.) programming more Sibelius with US orchestras, but who knows how long, if ever, that will take.

Thanks for the response. It is fascinating how popular Sibelius once was, and how quickly he seems to have lost favor in many circles. (I've got to dig 'Laura' out again, 'cause I don't recall that reference.) And you're so right about having to work at his music, to really listen. But what a pay-off. TIM


Another vote for Sibelius, but I think you have to go to London for an actual Sibelius festival (though Colin Davis did all the symphonies in NYC a few years ago with the LSO -
I was lucky enough to hear two of the programs, one of which included songs!)

We'll just have to live with the scraps we're lucky enough to get (the BSO and the NSO both did the 7th last year, the NSO in an all-Sibelius program).

In "Laura," I believe Vincent Price says he was at a concert for his alibi, listening to Beethoven and Brahms, but Dana Andrews fools him by saying they substituted an all-Sibelius program.

Sam from Chevy Chase

Interestingly, he is one of the two composers (Britten is the other) to whom Alex Ross devoted a full chapter in The Rest is Noise.

Thanks for the comments, Sam, and the vote for Sibelius. TIM

The Peabody gave us a good performance of the 4th a couple of seasons ago. All of his symphonies plus the mighty Kullervo Symphony deserve more circulation here. And his tone poems. One that might not be so well known is The Wood Nymph, which I listened to constantly when I first bought the Bis CD. Sibelius' music for the theater should not be overlooked either -- many gems to be discovered there.

Thanks for the comments. TIM

I would easily put Sibelius on the same level as Mahler or Bruckner: his music may be _totally_ different from theirs (as they are from each other), but it is _just_ as significant and _complete_ an experience! He had a knack for transforming and sculpting sound that few composers have ever possessed (especially in an age when everything was orchestral -- no electronics or recordings!), and I dare to say that he was the _greatest_ at this particular feat.

(He could transport you from one amazing moment to something _totally_ different almost instantaneously, yet you might not even realize how dramatic a shift has just occurred. The best music does this to you!)

I missed the concerts two seasons ago where Thomas Dausgaard led the BSO in "En Saga" and the 7th symphony (I think), and I also missed Ashkenazy lead the NSO in the 1st and 7th (with something else between them...) not too long before. I've had the pleasure of hearing Osmo Vänskä conduct the 6th in Philly (as well as the 3rd, though the third movement in that particular performance was a bit sloppy, especially with the winds!), but I want more, too!

(I love the original version of "En Saga" -- why did that genius make those cuts?! -- and we absolutely _need_ to hear "Tapiola" done correctly.)

I believe Oundjian is doing a Sibelius cycle in Toronto next April -- I heard him lead the 2nd in Philly about 3 years ago, and that was absolutely _perfect_. Maybe he can bring some of that Sibelian magic on his next visit!

Although I admire Sibelius' 4th Symphony, I can't say in the present economic climate I'd schedule it. When I last heard it (years ago) under Rostropovich, my reaction was "What a great work to make you feel suicidal!" I don't want to thin the audience for serious music!
I think the orchestral song repertoire has been bypassed by the BSO because, frankly, I think the Meyerhoff's acoustics are very unflattering to unamplified voices. But there are tons of piano accompanied songs which could be chosen from to make up a great recital at a smaller venue. Tom Krause made a beautiful LP of Sibelius songs - don't know whether it ever made it to CD.

Thanks very much for commenting. To me, it's just a matter of how you program a dark-mood piece, what you pair it with, etc. I'd hate to go without great works just because they're on the bleak side. As for the songs, I agree the Meyerhoff isn't ideal, but I have heard some voices bloom there quite nicely. It's all a matter of the right singer, conductor and repertoire. TIM

The Toronto Symphony cycle of the Sibelius symphonies is actually with guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard, as follows:

(a) Symphonies 1 & 2
(b) Symphonies 3 & 4
(c) Symphonies 5, 6 & 7

Definite kudos to Peter Oundjian for approving and programming this cycle wearing his hat as music director in Toronto (even if he isn't my favorite conductor, but never mind).

If it takes the Finns, as well as other Scandinavians, to start percolating more Sibelius programming in North America, then so be it. One hopes that it continues and that the more "Anglo" conductors take notice and program more of it accordingly.

Great to hear about others who are in love with Sibelius! I'm a Finnish citizen, and a US citizen conducting in New York City and abroad. I was formerly assistant conductor to Robert Spano with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and we did Kullervo there! He then did it with the Boston Symphony and recorded it now with his Atlanta Symphony! How about the incidental music to The Tempest? 66 minutes worth of music that has never been performed in the USA. It needs a theater company, as well as a full symphony orchestra. Maybe some place like Peabody should do it? Juilliard? Indiana? Amazing music. I made an arranagement of 1/2 of the music for my SONOS here in NYC. Even critical edition scores have come out now (but prohibitively expensive). In addition to the obvious symphonies, there are so many wonderful songs, and incidental music to be heard! Keep up the pressure! I keep programming it, too! My orchestra did the US premiere of "The Countess Portrait," A 4 minute piece for strings and narrator! Who else could program a piece like that?
Don't forget the Sibelius festival in Lahti Finland every year, with their new music director Jukka-Pekka Saraste. I saw the complete symphonies, rehearsed, dress rehearsed and performed in the span of 1 week under Osmo Vanska. Amazing to hear Finns play Finnish music!

Thanks so much for the great comments, and for your advocacy for Sibelius. I envy you that festival experience. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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