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THomas Dausgaard stars with Sibelius

Roy Thomson Hall
04/14/2010 -  & April 15, 17, 21, 22, 2010
Jean Sibelius: The Complete Symphonies – Finlandia, Opus 26 – Cantique and Devotion, Opus 77 No. 1 & 2 – Humoresques, Opus 87 No. 1 & 2 – Serenades, Opus 69 No. 1 & 2

Pekka Kuusisto (Violinist)
Sibelius Festival Chorus, Paul Hietala (Choral Director), Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard (Conductor),

T. Dausgaard (Courtesy of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra)

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra has a busy and eclectic season. In recent years regular concerts are interestingly spaced off by a series of mini-festivals, one of which has been a survey of the seven Sibelius symphonies under guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard. Maestro Dausgaard is Chief Conductor of both the Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. He has conducted all the Sibelius symphonies with other orchestras, but never in such a concentrated period as in this Toronto residency.

Supplementing the symphonies on each program were performances of a number of Sibelius’s short violin pieces which the program informed us number in the dozens. They are difficult to program and are thus rarely heard. Performing them was the young Finnish violinist, Pekka Kuusisto.

Part One (April 14 and 15): The series got off to a stunning start with the first two symphonies, dating from 1899/1900 and 1902 respectively. It quickly became apparent that Maestro Dausgaard was bent on drawing a wonderful airy sound from the orchestra, yet rich in tone (and never muddy). He is also the master of eloquent silences, and favours a wide volume range. The First symphony briefly featured a stunning solo part for Joaquin Valdepenas, the orchestra’s principal clarinetist and (at least locally) a star in his own right. The glowing finale would have been a fitting finale to any concert, leaving one wondering if the second big piece on the program might be anti-climactic.

Separating the large symphonies were the first two of the six Humoresques of Opus 87 (dated 1912). In the first one, the orchestra begins with a typically dark Sibelian sound, but the violin quickly nudges the proceedings into a surprisingly light, rather teasing vein. The violinist adopted a suitably mischievous persona for the pieces. One could perceive the kernel of a concerto in this music.

The Second symphony, coming after the intermission and the violin soufflés, turned out not to be overshadowed by the epic first. Here again, the conductor drew a terrific tone from the orchestra in a well-paced performance that (nice surprise) made me hear this familiar favorite anew.

To top off a concert that didn’t really need anything more, we heard the familiar Valse Triste (composed in 1904).

P. Kuusisto (© Tanya Ahola)

Part Two: (April 17): This concert began with a festival-scale performance of Sibelius’s most familiar piece, Finlandia, in a monumental version with the TSO augmented by the 87 members of the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra, and featuring the Sibelius Festival Chorus, a 150-strong contingent made up of five Toronto-area choirs, to whit: Dzirksts, a Latvian Chamber Choir, Vox Finlandiae, Toronto’s Finnish Chamber Choir, Volungè, a Lithuanian chorus, the Estonia Choir, and the Jubilate Singers, described as an eclectic choir. Yes, it certainly was grand, although one was left wanting a grander and more velvety sound from the male half of the massed choristers.

The Third Symphony (dating from 1907) followed. Sibelius was determined not to keep repeating himself. In contrast to the first two symphonies, this one uses a smaller orchestra and contains moments that can be described as rollicking, contrasted with epic, transcendental passages. The finale features a flowing chorale passage reminiscent of that in Finlandia.

The violin pieces on this night were those of Opus 77 (dating from 1915): “Cantique: Laetare anima mea” (“Rejoice, my soul”), and “Devotion: Ab imo pectore” (“From the depths of the heart”). One doesn’t associate Sibelius with religious or devotional music, and these pieces are devotional more in mood than anything else. The floating “Cantique” is for small orchestra and features the harp as much as the violin, which seems almost incidental. “Devotion”, for larger ensemble, leaves a subterranean impression.

Ending the program was Sibelius’s problem symphony, the Fourth (dating from 1911). The composer termed it “a protest against present-day music” – which one supposes would have to include his own music, as well as that of Mahler, Schoenberg and others in a time of great musical ferment. The opening movement features a funereal cello solo, searchingly performed by principal cellist Winona Zelenka. The sound becomes ethereal. The livelier second movement comes to an abrupt, rather impatient end. The third movement returns us to the funereal, while the fourth movement, which builds briefly to a big moment, falls back to the work’s extreme austerity.

If Sibelius’s distinctive sound can be compared to darkly glowing embers, in this work they come close to burning right out. The work confounded audiences when it was new – and still does so today. To mitigate its bleak impression, we were treated to another encore: the Andante Festivo, composed for string quartet in 1922 and orchestrated in 1938 (during Sibelius’s long years of silence). Here again is a flowing chorale, reminding one of both Finlandia and the finale of the Third symphony.

Part III (April 21 and 22): The program began with the two Opus 69 Serenades for Violin and Orchestra, both rather melancholy. The first (Andante assai), like the “Cantique” in program number two, features the solo violin almost incidentally. At one point the work becomes so extremely pianissimo I’m not sure everyone in the large hall could have heard it.

This was followed by another of the composer’s most familiar works, the Fifth symphony, which had a troubled gestation over the five tumultuous years (for both Sibelius and world) from 1914 to 1919. The fact that the composer himself regarded it as a throwback doesn’t seem to bother us today – what is musical “progress” anyway? Conductor and orchestra gave us a committed, gripping performance leading up to the astonishing six slashing chords that end the piece.

I anticipated that the Sixth and Seventh symphonies (composed more or less together, and first performed in 1923 and 1924 respectively) might seem anti-climactic after the epochal fifth, but it wasn’t so. Conductor and continued orchestra again gave us absorbing, ideally-modulated performances as in the first two concerts.

A mini-series like this was a terrific way to focus on a composer (whose symphonic output nicely fits into such a survey - a larger output gets logistically problematic). Sibelius was a fully formed composer in 1900 (age 35) when the first symphony was premiered, and the 24-year period between the first and the last does not see a development so much as an extensive exploration. It’s a pity he didn’t work up a second violin concerto, but (as mentioned above) he seems to have wanted to avoid repeating himself. The mystery behind his long years of silence seems to be that he had said everything he wanted to say.

It was also a terrific way to get acquainted with a conductor. Maestro Dausgaard has been an annual visitor with the TSO for several seasons, but this series has served to establish himself more firmly as a musician to be welcomed back. Next season he is scheduled for a Mozart/Bruckner program.

And even though Pekka Kuusisto played only for about 40 minutes over three programs, it was a great way to experience his range. He debuted here in 2005 (playing – guess what? – the Sibelius) – I look forward to hearing him in other repertory.

Toronto had a steady dose of Sibelius during the directorship of Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste (1994-2001). It was great to be reminded of that era.

These performances will be broadcast on the CBC on various programs at various times. Catch them if you can.

Michael Johnson



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