Finlandia, Op. 26
Work composed: 1899, rev. 1900
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Guest conductor Eri Klas led the Oregon Symphony on January 10-12, 2011
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and strings.
Estimated duration: 8 minutes
By November 1899, the citizens of Finland had endured almost a century of heavy-handed rule by Russia, which included severe censorship of the press. That month, a group of artists in Finland’s capital, Helsinki, organized a series of “Press Celebrations,” which were actually political demonstrations on behalf of the growing movement for Finnish independence. Jean Sibelius wrote and conducted Finland Awakes for one of these gatherings. The following year, Sibelius reworked the score and changed its title to Finlandia for the Helsinki Philharmonic to perform on its first major tour of Europe. Audiences everywhere responded to Finlandia, and it quickly established Sibelius as a composer on the rise.
The oppressive Russian presence growls through the low brasses and timpani as Finlandia begins. Sibelius follows this with a gentle statement in the winds, which grows into a defiant, heroic anthem heralded by brasses, horns and strings. Interestingly, the most memorable theme of Finlandia does not make its appearance until more than halfway through the work. This hymn-like melody, inspired by folk tunes but invented by Sibelius, sounds quietly in the winds, and eventually becomes an impassioned cry of freedom as Finlandia comes to its triumphal conclusion.
Violin Concerto No. 3 “Kõnelused Tundmatuga” (Conversations with the Unknown)
Work composed: 2019-20. Commissioned by the Oregon Symphony, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: solo violin, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, piano, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 35 minutes
Erkki-Sven Tüür, whose works have been described by The Washington Post as “spare, probing, intense, and extraordinarily characterful,” is one of Estonia’s foremost living composers. Tüür is prolific, having written nine symphonies, a number of concertos, chamber music, an opera, and various choral works. The Washington Post continues, “Tüür’s compositions work on an almost physical level, using insistent gestures to build structures of sound that are both powerful and deeply moving.”
Tüür wants his music to raise existential questions and ask: “What is our mission?” He states that, as this is a recurring question asked by thinkers and philosophers from different cultures, one of his goals is to reach the creative energy of the listener. “Music, as an abstract form of art,” he says, “is able to create different visions for each of us, for each and every individual being, as we are all unique.”
His approach to composition is not dissimilar to how architect might design a building such as a cathedral, a theatre, or other public space, though he says that the responsibility of the composer goes further, constructing drama inside the space with different characters and forces, creating a certain living form of energy.
“I have always chosen titles which indicate an ambivalent approach,” says Tüür about the title of his third violin concerto, “Conversations with the Unknown.” “This title also refers to different possible conversations with an ‘other self:’ an inner voice (conscience), God (in the most abstract meaning), or with someone you do not know but wish to have as a close friend,” he continues. “The conversation is always a dialogue with a certain projection of imagination which is always changing and evolving. The violin soloist is like an individual in the middle of a jungle of ideas, values, etc., trying to bring light and better understanding to one’s journey through the life, seeking answers for the most existential questions.
“My orchestral music is always using the polyphony of layers consisting of several polyphonic lines, the density of which gradually grows or falls away. The three movements of the concerto are performed without pause (slow – fast – slow). However, there is always a feeling of different tempi sounding simultaneously in different layers …
“Listen for one particular ensemble in the orchestra: piano, harp, vibraphone, and glockenspiel; from the beginning of the work, they form an atmospheric counterpoint to the violin line … The first movement ends up with short cadenza which leads into a groovy middle movement. After the huge orchestral culmination, we enter into a different sound world: this is the door to the third movement, more mysterious and atmospheric, sometimes somber and opaque. The solo violin plays against always-shifting acoustic conditions. He is surrounded by ‘overpainted’ musical spaces.”
Tüür wrote this concerto with violinist Vadim Gluzman in mind. “His extraordinary talent, musicianship, energy, and his color (sound) act as a special trigger for me, a source of sonic inspiration.”
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64
Work composed: between May and August 26, 1888
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Guest conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier led the Oregon Symphony on October 24-26, 2015
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.
Estimated duration: 43 minutes
“I desperately want to prove, not only to others, but also to myself, that I am not yet played out as a composer,” wrote Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to his patron Nadezhda von Meck in the spring of 1888. With the benefit of hindsight, the idea that Tchaikovsky could think himself “played out” is puzzling; after he completed the Fifth Symphony, he went on to write Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and the “Pathétique” Symphony. All artists go through periods of self-doubt, however; and Tchaikovsky was plagued by creative insecurity more than most.
If you ask a Tchaikovsky fan to name their favorite symphony, they will most likely choose either the Fourth, with its dramatic “Fate” motif blaring in the brasses, or the Sixth (“Pathétique”). Sandwiched in between is the Fifth Symphony, often overlooked or undervalued when compared to its more popular neighbors. But the Fifth is a monument in its own right, showcasing Tchaikovsky’s undisputed mastery of melody; indeed, the Fifth rolls out one unforgettable tune after another. Over time, the Fifth Symphony has earned its place in the canon of orchestral repertoire itself, but Tchaikovsky, along with several 19th century music critics, wavered in his opinion of its worth. At the end of the summer in 1888, Tchaikovsky wrote to von Meck, “It seems to me that I have not blundered, that it has turned out well,” and to his nephew Vladimir Davidov after a concert in Hamburg, “The Fifth Symphony was magnificently played and I like it far better now, after having held a bad opinion of it for some time.”
Critics dismissed the new symphony as beneath Tchaikovsky’s abilities, and one American critic damned the composer with faint praise when he opined, “[Tchaikovsky] has been criticized for the occasionally excessive harshness of his harmony, for now and then descending to the trivial and tawdry in his ornamental figuration, and also for a tendency to develop comparatively insignificant material to inordinate length. But, in spite of the prevailing wild savagery of his music, its originality and the genuineness of its fire and sentiment are not to be denied.”
The Fifth Symphony features a theme that recurs in all four movements. We hear it first in the lowest chalumeau register of the clarinet, which conveys an air of foreboding. The late critic and scholar Michael Steinberg described the theme’s effects in all the movements: “It will recur as a catastrophic interruption of the second movement’s love song, as an enervated ghost that approaches the languid dancers of the waltz, and … in majestic and blazing E major triumph.”
Tchaikovsky’s gift for melody reached beyond the classical music world in 1939, when the poignantly wistful horn solo from the Andante cantabile morphed into the popular song “Moon Love,” which became a hit for big band leader and trombonist Glenn Miller.
© Elizabeth Schwartz