Bard Summerscape Festival 2011 – Sibelius and his World

United StatesUnited States  Sibelius, Raitio, Nielsen, Barber, Vaughan Williams: American Symphony Orchestra, Yulia Doren (soprano), Tyler Duncan (baritone), Leon Botstein (conductor), Sosnoff Theater, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. 20-21.8.2011 (GG)

Saturday, Aug. 20

Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela , Op. 22, No. 2
: Lemminkäinen’s Return, Op. 22. No. 4
Väinö Raitio:
Joutsenet (The Swans), Op. 15
Symphony No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 63
The Oceanides , Op. 73
Carl Nielsen:
Symphony No. 3, Op. 27, Sinfonia espansiva

Sunday, Aug. 21

Sibelius: Tapiola , Op. 112
Symphony No. 1, Op. 9
Vaughan Williams:
Symphony No. 5 in D Major
Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 105

The Bard annual Summerscape festival focuses on a particular composer and “his world,” featuring his orchestral and chamber music, as well as from those who influenced him, his contemporaries and followers, and there are lectures and panel discussions that explore various aspects of his life and work. This year’s composer was the great symphonist Jean Sibelius.

While the music and talk explored standard aspects of his life and career – nationalism, his long silence, the question of whether he was a conservative or a modernist – Artistic Director Leon Botstein had his own, unique perspective that he shared with me in an interview: Sibelius as architect of sound, laying out plans, rooms and details in blocks of orchestral colors and resonances. And Botstein identified Sibelius’s unusual and important approach to time, one in which a sense of stillness, of non-movement through time, is wrapped around the music’s duration and activity.

It’s a fresh approach, and one that in concert was stimulating, satisfying and often astonishing. The two concluding orchestral concerts that I attended explored this view in real depth. Although there were occasional problems with the orchestral execution, Botstein had not only thoroughly considered his approach but just as clearly imprinted it on the players. The Op. 22 tone poems, especially The Swan of Tuonela, were remarkable for their sense of stillness and sonic beauty. The notes proceed consecutively through time – we are slaves to it – and the ideas develop based on what has come before, but Botstein conveyed the remarkable sensation that time had stopped while the music went on. Or, rather, the music seemed to happen in the moments between time, between seconds, the music’s own activity making time seem static, more powerfully so than the most mesmerizing Minimalist pieces. The contrast between Sibelius and the similar theme from Väinö Raitio, an atmospheric, highly Romantic and enjoyable work, and one with a clear AABA structure, was fascinating. Raitio tracked time in music; Sibelius paused time.

The extremes of this approach are Sibelius’s Fourth and Seventh symphonies. Stasis is built into the former, and so is plangent harmonic conflict and quite a lot of dynamic activity, while the latter runs away from us, in time. On the surface, Botstein’s ideas ran counter to the prevailing styles of performance. Sibelius is relatively new to him, and his approach is unencumbered by tradition. The Fourth was lean, tough-minded. Technically, in all the pieces, Botstein built the music from an assured foundation in Sibelius’s gently rocking and swaying chords. With the musical pulse both certain and freed from a strict sense of counting, every moment seemed fully occupied while making room for things like Eugene Moye’s beautiful cello solo. The musical line flowed consistently throughout, and the balance between the vivacious Allegro movement and a driven and completely unsentimental Largo made Botstein’s hard push on the chaotic climax and the subdued final phrase an expression of both resignation and determination.

The Saturday concert closed with an excellent Oceanides, sounding like proto-Shostakovich, and a vital, brilliant performance of the great Nielsen Third Symphony. In the latter, Botstein’s pace was excellent – like the nearby Hudson river, combining a shimmering, lovely surface with an inexorable forward movement, although far more light-footed than the countless gallons of water moving towards the ocean. The feeling was sunny, joyful, humane, the solo voices coming, appropriately, from the heavens above the stage itself.

Sunday’s concert was one of the finest orchestral programs and performances I’ve witnessed in thirty years of concert-going. The power and beauty of the pieces were exceeded by that of the playing. Tapiola again showed the strength of the rocking, harmonic foundation, Botstein building a weighty still point in time, filled with color, detail and an appropriate expression of passion and mystery. The music seemed to be warning Sibelius of his impending silence.

The playing of Barber’s symphony, one of the great ones of the twentieth century, had more power, intensity and emotional depth than any I have ever heard, in concert or on recording. The orchestra played the first, fanfare-like iteration of the theme that runs through the piece with an exceedingly forceful, hard-edged articulation, and it was a clear indication of the brilliant build-up of tension that Botstein would shape. His Allegro ma non troppo seemed at the extreme edge of “not too fast,” and although the final passacaglia was astonishingly fast, nothing was rushed in the conductor’s argument. He maintained the symphony’s line with clarity and emphasized the subtle, theme-and-variations foundation to the four-section structure. The gripping force eased like a revelation at each period of repose, the climax pushed just to the edge of hysteria. It’s often easy to forget the sheer physical force and emotional intensity that classical music can express, and this was an incredibly fine and important reminder.

After intermission, the Vaughan Williams Fifth Symphony was a perfect counterpoint to the overwhelming emotion of the Barber. The orchestra moved easily from dark, almost brutal power to limpid clarity, graceful lyricism and sweet humor – a reading that was beautiful, deeply felt, completely delightful.

For the final piece of the entire festival, Botstein chose Sibelius’s great Seventh Symphony – one of the masterpieces of Western classical music – and again, fresh, fascinating, profound. He was deliberate throughout, without undue exaggeration, from the true Adagio tempo of the opening bars on. He was deliberate in every transition, including the churning strings that rush up to the Allegro molto. Here and there that deliberation seemed questionable, but each time it turned out to be a component through which he built the overall shape of the music, and did so imaginatively. Botstein worked from simplicity to complexity, holding back a bit in certain sections and with certain groups in the orchestra, only to bring them in intimate meeting with music and instruments to come. In his hands, the great trombone solo, a mere triad, appeared as a deeply moving statement in the midst of an intellectual and emotional complexity, carefully and clearly built. As a cognate of Barnett Newman’s assertion that the aesthetic gesture is the thing that made us homo sapiens, this was a concert for the ages, and also a fundamental demonstration of the humanity, wisdom and importance of making music.

George Grella