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Salonen Mines Two Degrees of Sibelius


Once heard, Sibelius' "Kullervo" Symphony is hard to forget. Heard many times, the same composer's "Tapiola" remains an enigma. Your heart beats strong during the one; your mind puzzles over the other.

In a program that could have been titled "The Beginning and the End of Jean Sibelius," Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed these two works, and these only, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Thursday night. Always an astute program maker, Salonen once again picked pieces that, by their proximity and polarity, created sparks.

The "Kullervo" Symphony--five movements, 70 minutes long and expansively themed--was the Finnish composer's first major orchestral work. "Tapiola"--a single movement and 18 minutes long, austere and gnomic--was his last major work in any form. Sibelius, incredibly, suppressed the first after its initial performances in 1892, and it languished unpublished and unperformed for the rest of his life (he died in 1957).

Equally incredibly, after "Tapiola" in 1926, Sibelius suppressed himself--his compositional pen virtually stilled for 30 years, despite international fame. Such are the results of acute self-criticism.

Salonen and the Philharmonic, who have recorded the work, gave "Kullervo" a compelling and authoritative performance. The conductor does not milk its emotions to the fullest (as is his way), but brings to it a concentration and intensity that serves just as well.

The National Male Choir of Estonia, 60 strong, intoned the text, taken from the Finnish epic "Kalevala," with proper manliness, chanting solemnly and heralding in stentorian tones. Baritone Raimo Laukka (clarion, declamatory) and mezzo-soprano Monica Groop (agile, terse) brought considerable fervor to the roles of Kullervo and his Sister. Conductor and orchestra did not always overcome the work's problems with instrumental balance, but gave an impressively athletic, neat and consistently committed reading.

"Tapiola" served as the icebreaker, its spareness bordering on minimalism, its slow-moving form like a geology lesson. (Want to hear what sliding tectonic plates sound like? Listen to "Tapiola.") Salonen let it take its course and the granitic brass and tensely pressed strings made their points.

* The program repeats tonight at 8 at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos, $40-$55; (800) 300-4345; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. $8-$60. (213) 365-3500.

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