Minnesota Orchestra makes Sibelius proud

Tuesday, January 28, 2020 - 4:14pm

The atmosphere before Saturday night’s Minnesota Orchestra concert at Hill Auditorium was electric. The orchestra was dressed in white-tie attire, the choir in black ties. This was the University Musical Society’s first performance of the decade in Hill Auditorium. It was an all-Sibelius concert conducted by Finnish conductor (and noted Sibelius enthusiast) Osmo Vänskä. The stage was artificially extended to fit the large orchestra, as well as the choir and narrator required for the opening work: composer Jean Sibelius’s “Snöfrid,” a choral melodrama rarely performed in the United States.

In a pre-concert talk, the audience got a sense for the musical and linguistic challenges that went behind programming this rarely-performed work. Not only were the choral and narratorial parts in Swedish, they were in Old Swedish. The UMS Choral Union, a UMS employee explained, spent months learning to sing in this language. Along with the narrator, Sassa Åkervall, they were more than up to the task.

Though the work dragged at a few points, particularly when the audience’s attention was split between the supertitles projected above the ensemble and the narrator speaking over simple orchestral textures, the overall effect was quite convincing. For those American audiences that know little of Sibelius’s work besides his symphonies and violin concerto, this was a reminder of Sibelius’s tone poems, melodramas and other programmatic pieces.

After a brief pause, the orchestra launched into my favorite performance of the evening, Sibelius’s “Concerto in d minor for Violin and Orchestra.” The soloist was US-born Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä. 

Coming from the triumphant ending of the first work, it took a few seconds to adjust to the orchestra’s new sound. Sibelius’s concerto starts almost as quiet as possible — in the transition between “Snöfrid” and the Violin Concerto, the full dynamic range of the ensemble was on display.

From her first entrance, Vähälä’s sound was as commanding as her presence was unassuming. Unlike many concerto soloists, she didn’t use physical gestures to emphasize her performance abilities. She made her part look easy, almost effortless at times.

At one point, for example, the violinist is called upon to play four notes at once; by quickly curling the bow along the four strings, they can approximate these four-note harmonies. Vähälä navigated this passage with ease, even managing to compliment the inner-harmony melodies she was playing that were also sounding in the upper woodwinds.

The orchestra, particularly the upper strings, seemed to build off of Vähälä’s energy. A performance that began tentative and fragile ended bright and triumphant. The Minnesota Orchestra clearly knows its Sibelius, from the sweeping melodic lines double by the strings to the occasional brass melodies and woodwind solos that briefly come to the fore.

After Vähälä’s stellar performance and the audience’s two rounds of applause, the orchestra began one of Sibelius’s most performed works: the “Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major.” Yet again, the opening minutes felt tentative and rushed. Some of the accelerandos and ritardandos (increases and decreases in tempo) were slightly exaggerated.

Once the orchestra hit their stride, though, they never lost it. The ending of the first movement was executed perfectly. It was the quintessential Sibelius ending: loud, proud melodic lines over simple pedal harmonies. 

The second and third movements unfolded in a similar manner to the first. I was surprised, at first, at how little the volume and expressive contour of these two movements changed. But this was not a quiet, unassuming concert opener. This was the confident end to the concert and the orchestra interpreted the work at such.

And in the middle of the third movement, when the orchestra finally played the sweeping, soaring theme the symphony is famous for, I couldn’t help but close my eyes to revel in the sound. If this had been all that the orchestra performed, it still would have made the evening worth it.

After two rounds of applause, the orchestra performed a brief encore: Sibelius’s “Valse Triste.” This quirky little waltz was an appropriate end to an evening of Sibelius. We’d heard his dramatic choral music, his virtuosic instrumental music, his magnificent symphonic music and now his fun character pieces. 

This all-Sibelius concert drew my attention to a number of these archetypical Sibelius techniques. Frequent fluctuations between arco and pizzicato string sections, for one thing, as a means of repeating melodic lines but varying color and texture. Sparing use of brass and woodwinds was another. Above all, it was Sibelius’s simple, diatonic melodies, the kind that are doubled by three string sections (sometimes even at the octave) that most stuck out to me. I left with a newfound interest in Sibelius — a composer that I thought I knew very well — which is quite a statement about the quality of the performance I’d witnessed.