Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Sibelius Festival concluded

Image result for Akseli Gallen Kallela Cloud Towers

Akseli Gallen-Kallela – Pilvi tornit (Cloud Towers, 1904)

Jean Sibelius

Tapiola, Op.112
The Tempest, Op.109
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op.43

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Alexander Prior

Winspear
Saturday, March 9, 2019


The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s Sibelius Festival ended, as it should, not with the quiet glaze of a northern Finnish sun over icy wastes – that was left to the first half of the closing concert – but with the life-affirming splendour of the final chords of the Second Symphony. It was also the most consistently satisfying concert in a festival that has shown the orchestra and its Chief Conductor – and, no doubt, for many audience members, the composer – in a new light, and it was enthusiastically received.

The concert opened with Sibelius’ last tone-poem, Tapiola, written in 1926 when he was 60. Inspired by the story of the King of the Forest, Tapio, from the Kalevala, Sibelius gave no detailed explanation of any program, but just an indication of what it evokes:

“Wide-spread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests, ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams; within them dwells the Forest’s mighty God, and wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.” (English version from the English language edition of the score)

This was a superlative performance, one of the best in the Festival, confirming that Prior is a Sibelius conductor to be reckoned with. Tapiola is very much music of shades and layers – regularly surging up from the leaf mould of the forest floor, with bass colours (such as that of the contra-bassoon) emphasized. This entirely suits Prior’s approach, as again he graduated the dynamics in sections of the orchestra to bring out those different layers (as he also did in the Symphony No.2 later in the concert). He treated it very much as a 20th-century work, with its fleeting touches of polytonality, in its unsettled harmonies, in the tense chatter of some of the massed violin writing – indeed, he found here the tension that was a bit subdued in the earlier concerts. His approach really works, and at the end I heard from the audience member behind me a fully deserved but involuntary sotto voce “Wow!”

It was followed by Prior’s own selection of 11 movements from the 19 in total found in the two Tempest suites, also written in 1926. He omitted the overture, and instead opened with the sparse Northern landscape painting of the ‘Oak Tree’ – here was decidedly a Tempest of a northern island, somewhere twixt the Faroes and the Åland Islands, without a vestige of a Caribbean surf, or indeed, a Mediterranean sun. Four more joyful movements followed, but even Caliban’s song is a kind of Hebridean dance with exotic tinges. Ariel’s song led us back to misty landscapes, and to the sense of resignation that somehow permeates the suite. The storm was next, but this is a storm of bitter cold winds and ice in the rigging, of fog horns in the brass – the kind of storm that one might associate more with Pullman’s Golden Compass than the start of Shakespeare’s play. Two more dance-like movements followed, culminating in an ending that reverted to the quiet northern landscape of the beginning. This, too, is music that looks towards the modern as much as back to the Romantics – Rautavaara is one of the inheritors, and there is even a Khachaturian-like moment in the Intrada that leads into the Berceuse (Suite No.1 VII). The performance was a winning one, with a tremendous but remorseless, controlled storm, and a very sensible placement of the harp right at the front and side of the stage, to allow the instrument to sing out in two of the movements.

These two late works both contrasted and complimented each other, and were a reminder that in the first Finnish performance of Tapiola it was paired with the overture to The Tempest, followed by Sibelius’ final symphony, the Seventh. Here, though, the Festival ended with his most popular symphony, the Second. The orchestra had clearly got the measure of what Prior was looking for in his interpretation, especially in those layered dynamics (this is where extra rehearsal pays such dividends). For he concentrated on the shape of the symphony, crisp and with no sentimentality in the opening movement, and a very slow build-up dynamically in the second movement. The virtues of this performance were the very deliberate and even tempi – those with a Romantic leaning might have wished for more flashy accelerandi, rallentandi, and crescendi, but that remorseless deliberation seemed to me to show the unfolding of the symphony a new, and very effective, light. It was almost as if the symphony were in one whole movement, rather than four. This makes sense, as those four movements share the organic growth of germ material, and similar contrasts of mood, and the difference in tone between them is not nearly as marked as in many symphonies. And to that committed playing from the orchestra – one marvelous cello moment from Rafael Hoekman, and wonderfully Russian-sounding trumpet tone from Robin Doyon, so appropriate for this work – and this was a compelling performance.

And so the isle was now empty of those sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. The thousand twangling instruments had ceased their humming, and the Festival was over.

Perhaps ‘Festival’ is a little too strong a word,  in spite of the various Finnish activities in the foyer. I do hope it is the progenitor of similar program planning, concentrating on one composer (or perhaps a particular country) in the future – certainly it seemed to go down well with the audiences. But if so, why not extend it to truly create a festival that could become a feature in this city of festivals? It wouldn’t take much to get together with the Edmonton Recital Society and the Chamber Music Society to have associated concerts during the festival period, nor would it take much to get some a contemporary art from the region concerned (an exhibition of contemporary Finnish art would have been really interesting here, and it’s not that difficult to tap into a country’s cultural affairs to arrange such things). And it wouldn’t take that much to organize an academic conference to go with it. The result would then be a true festival, and, what’s more, one that would give the orchestra and the city international attention in a cultural area that hasn’t yet received an international gaze.

To organize such a festival, a longer lead time is needed (two or three years), and co-operation between various organizations (such as the Art Gallery of Alberta and other musical organizations on the city, and a university for the conference). Both are possible, and to have such cross-organizational co-operation, rather than the rather cliquey solitudes we have at the moment, would make such a festival worthwhile even before the music started.

Let’s go for it.

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