Sunday, November 8, 2015

Sibelius festival

It's still a month until the 150th anniversary of the birth of Jean Sibelius, but Stanford is holding its festival this weekend. It's a small event: two concerts by student ensembles, neither event all-Sibelius, and a tiny 3-hour scholarly symposium.

I attended the first concert, by the Stanford Wind Ensemble, i.e. concert band, not at first sight a promising way to honor Sibelius, since he didn't write any music for concert band. However, some hand unnamed in the program book had arranged two of Sibelius' popular early works for that grouping. The Karelia Suite was rather beyond the players' capacity, but they produced a magnificently growly Finlandia. That was about 1/3 of the concert; the rest was music actually written for this instrumentation, including one of Gustav Holst's echt-English suites and an equally echt-American suite by that mainstay of band composition, Alfred Reed.

I didn't attend the student symphony orchestra concert, due to awkwardness of timing and the fact that my desire to hear Sibelius' Second Symphony was outweighed by my desire not to hear Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto.

The symposium consisted of talks by three guest speakers. All were illustrated by music clips, and the computers were far less uncooperative than they usually are at the historical recordings symposia. All three engaged with the question of Sibelius' scholarly reputation, which was very low for decades and has only recently re-emerged, a disparagement whose initiation they all attributed to the famed musicologist Theodor Adorno having given Sibelius a severe thumbs-down in an essay in 1938. All three gently suggested that Adorno had not studied Sibelius' scores very closely and did not know what he was talking about.

Daniel Grimley of Oxford University discussed the sense of landscape in Sibelius, identifying this technically as consisting of a spaciousness in his music, and attributing its inspiration to the composer's sensitivity to both the sights and sounds of the Finnish countryside. The sound aspect is particularly interesting; Grimley showed us a scholarly article with a sound map of a wilderness area, i.e. it showed what sounds you'd predominantly hear in different parts. He also pointed out that, when some British pilots made a documentary film of their flight over Everest (the first ever) in 1934, the music they used for the scenes of rugged, frozen Himalayan landscapes was Sibelius' then-recent and highly challenging Seventh Symphony. Very appropriate.

Erik Ulman, a composer at Stanford, asked what inspiration Sibelius could, and in his case does, give to a very different, atonal modernist composer like himself. Frequently apologizing lest his technical discussion went over the heads of his audience (it didn't go over mine), he used the tone poem Tapiola as his text to identify various exquisite nuances of instrumental color, texture, harmonic design, and fragmentation of melodic line. I was particularly struck by Ulman's pointing out that sheens of string sound that he called "sound sheets" are actually intricately constructed of different lines trading notes off, giving the sheen an almost subliminal but strongly-based rhythmic construction. I was reminded of the way Sibelius uses overlapping lines to create the famous horn call in the Fifth Symphony.

Laura Gray of the University of Waterloo (Ontario) gave a lighter historical overview, comparing Sibelius' reputation (among the public and music critics rather than in scholarship) in Britain and the US in the 1930s. In those days he was exceedingly popular in both countries, and considered the epitome of a virile, rugged, gruff, outdoorsy composer. (Whether he was actually personally like that, though articles at the time claimed he was, Gray considered beside the point.) The difference was that, in the US but not in Britain, his use as a polemic weapon against the avant-garde produced a counter-movement, including dismissals by composer-critics such as Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, turning Sibelius into a shuttlecock in the culture wars.

There was a reception afterwards, sponsored (I gathered) by some Finnish-American cultural group, small and informal enough that I got to speak with all the presenters. One of the other attendees I spoke with was a man who described himself as a Wagnerian who knew little of Sibelius (I recommended the First and Fifth Symphonies as the ones most likely to appeal to a Wagnerian, and should have mentioned some of the tone poems like Pohjola's Daughter), who told me how he had taught his then 3-year-old daughter the Ring by describing the action as the music played and having her draw pictures of it. I thought, but did not say, that some of the plot themes were rather mature for a 3-year-old, and imagined him getting to the end of Walk├╝re and saying, "And this is what happens to little girls who don't obey their fathers."

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