Foreign, Humorous and Almost Divine: Salonen, Haydn & Sibelius – Naomi Yoran

It does not happen often that two Finnish composers are being performed in the same program. Last weekend it did! There is no reason, of course, to address the commonality of Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jean Sibelius just because they share the same nationality… (Would one do the same with, let’s say, Wagner and Mozart?). On the other hand, Finland is quite unique in its history and the position of their artists in the public consciousness, that I can’t help but think about it.

Salonen was born in 1958, one year after Sibelius’ death. As a young conductor and composer he already belongs to the "International Set", living & working all over the world, spending most of his past 15 years in the United States. Yet he feels a foreigner. He tells us so. Does he miss Finland the way Sibelius did? Does he feel an obligation to belong to "his people" in his art and wish to be recognized as "The National Composer of Finland" in this century?

These, of course, are just my own speculations but it is possible that these questions would not have crossed my mind but for the title:‘Foreign Bodies’. Not only did the composer made us aware of his emotions by naming the piece, but he went to a great length to write and explain his music. He offered us a great deal of complexity while combining ‘Foreign’ and ‘Body’, which appeared in the program notes and in a short documentary film projected on a large screen above the stage, prior to the performance.

Jean Sibelius just titled his composition ‘Symphony No.2 in D Major, Op.43’.

When it comes to titles, I prefer numbers. When it comes to composers clarifying their musical intentions, I prefer none.

When ever I listen to Sibelius’ ‘Symphony No.2 (which I love) I feel, imagine and discover fresh meanings. Sometimes it depends on my mood, other times, on the way an orchestra plays. In any case, I am never confined to the composer’s declared intentions (even when I know a great deal about his life).

As a paradox, I could not hear any "foreign" motif in ‘Foreign Bodies’, cosmic or personal. The music conveyed to me a strong structure, an interesting balance between powerful sounds of full orchestra and the delicate, at times wispering notes, of the solo phrases. To me, the music sounded rational, even cerebral. I did not feel any struggle or had any mental images of foreign bodies relating to each other in any way. As far as the composer’s suggestion of feeling as a stranger, it did not appear in the music. I grasped the music as clearly embedded in the "International contemporary style", quite fitting the time and Salonen’s existance.

Did I like the music? Well, it was interesting and I would listen to it again, but I did not fell in love with it the way I did with Sibelius’ ‘2nd Symphony’ as when I heard it the first time. I still remember feeling "yearning for the divine" (and it was so many years ago), a feeling arousing in different variations time & again.

Unfortunately, the PSO, last Sunday, did not offer me "much of the divine"… Was it the Conductor Michael Christie’s interpretation which left me baffeled? The most I could feel was "almost divine…"

I am greatful for Haydn’s ‘Concerto for Cello and Orchestra’ which was performed in between the "young & the old Finns". The PSO and the Conductor were in perfect sync, the music: intricate, exciting and emotional yet charming, with the virtuoso soloist Lynn Harrell, was a treat indeed.

Harrell, I believe, took clues from Haydn’s "humorous tendencies" and inserted his own humor. At the cadenza, a short phrase from Haydn’s ’94th Symphony’ (nicknamed ‘Surprise‘) was integrated, to the audience delight. (Some people chuckled! Many smiled). I thought (although I am not sure) that I heard a few notes of ‘twinkle twinkle little star’ as well. Twisting his cello around, while playing, might have been perceived as "over the top", but in that context, I perceived it as just taking humor a little further. As though to say: "Join me in my love of Haydn. Stop taking Classical Music as demanding & uncompromising". I find it not only a great way to lure the uninitiated but a reminder to all of us that a live performance will always carry the possibility of a surprise!

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