experiencing the raw power of nature in Sibelius’ sixth symphony – Matt Campbell

I am admittedly a latecomer to Sibelius' symphonies, and I'm thankful that John Adams programmed the sixth symphony in the weekend's PSO concerts, giving me an opportunity to get to know the sixth.

The sixth symphony is a strange introduction to Sibelius' set. Like Mahler's seventh symphony, Sibelius' sixth is the outcast of the family that conductors, audiences, and even die-hard fans of those composers avoid.

I feel the work is a cold and frigid, and for me it evokes imagery of a fast-flowing river full of melted snow traveling through rocky terrain with ice-coated pine trees in some arctic landscape. Those are the kinds of landscapes I love, so the work suited me perfectly.

I feel like Sibelius' symphony is driven by nature, whose logic and reasoning is very often hidden from us. But that doesn't put me off. Rather, it's quite liberating. Sibelius gives us in music the cascading, raw power of a river. Forget the harmony-driven machinations and excruciating intellect of Beethoven, Sibelius' symphony is just unbridled, natural power that sweeps all before it. Sibelius ends the movements of this symphony somewhat abruptly, but he's just giving us episodes, peeks into nature – the river continues its rapid flow.

I was excited to hear Adam's Dharma at Big Sur, but actually it was a bit of a disappointment for me. Adams routinely mixes styles in all of his works, but in Dharma, I just felt Adams' instinct for rhythm was incongruent with the meditative Hindu/laid-back West Coast attitude he was trying to project. Hindu music has plenty of rhythm, but it's the static harmony and constant rhythm that gives the music the meditative, eternal feel. I always felt like Adams wanted to grow, develop, build, intensify - all counter to that laid-back attitude.

I'm not sure what Adams was trying to do with the Indian/Pacific/Javanese influences. I wasn't sure if he wanted to adapt them for his own purposes, recreate them from anthropological curiosity, or mimic them, or just borrow it because it sounds cool. Messiaen discovered the methods of that music, and created a new style of his own. Colin McPhee wrote touristy-sounding music that borrowed from Gamelan music. Adams' purpose, at least to me, was unclear.

This was Adams' last concert with the PSO this season. Despite my disappointment with the Dharma at Big Sur, it was a wonderful season, and I'll surely be bragging years from now that I heard John Adams conduct this work, On the Transmigration of Souls, and the others the PSO performed this year. Adams is a great American composer, and it was great that Pittsburgh had the opportunity to spend time with him, and that he engaged the city so thoroughly through lectures, visits to the universities, audience talkbacks, podcasts, and, of course, through music.


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