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A Sibelius cycle without tears

The Finnish composer is old hat to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Salonen's approach isn't.

October 23, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles, you need hardly be reminded, is not Lapland. The Finnish north, now chilly and wet, will soon turn dark and cold. We are hot, dry and ablaze. Nonetheless, Sibelius, who sang of frozen Finland, is the current center of attention of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at shiny Walt Disney Concert Hall.

An Esa-Pekka Salonen-led Sibelius symphony cycle -- which covered Nos. 1 and 3 last weekend in the third of the four programs -- is a novelty, but Sibelius in this baking town is surprisingly not. The Second Symphony was new music less than 20 years old when the Philharmonic's first music director, Walter Henry Rothwell, programmed it in 1921 during the orchestra's third season. Georg Schneevoigt, a Finnish conductor who was hired in 1927 as the Philharmonic's short-lived second music director, was a friend of the composer. Five of the seven symphonies were in the orchestra's repertory before the end of the '30s.

Overwhelmed by nostalgia for his distant homeland, Schneevoigt was said to have an annoying habit of breaking down in tears when he conducted his good buddy's scores. Salonen doesn't appear to have that problem with Sibelius. This Finnish conductor's cycle, thus far, has had the character of cleansing restoration, of removing interpretive grime and residue.

His Sibelius is, at least to some extent, an L.A. Sibelius. If an icy northern gale often blows through these symphonies, a searing Santa Ana wind, which can be just as disquieting, was felt in the First and Third at the Sunday afternoon performance.

The audience was antsy during the opening half of the program, which began with the symphonic poem "Pohjola's Daughter" and the Third Symphony. The low humidity of Santa Anas can trigger coughing. But so too can Sibelius from this period, with its nervous-making insecurities. Both pieces were written in the middle years of the 20th century's first decade. Music was uncertain then. Mahler seemed to be leading the symphony to its final decadent glory, and there was no guarantee that the genre would continue. Schoenberg was beginning to unhinge tonality.

"Pohjola's Daughter" and the Third Symphony seem unable to linger on the past but don't quite get to the future. That is the point of the 15-minute symphonic poem, since the story, taken from Finland's national epic poem, the "Kalevala," vaguely illustrates a mythic hero's failings. It begins with a somber, burnished cello solo (warmly played Sunday by Peter Stumpf) and takes off, almost cheerfully, on an adventure through a land both exotic and exotically orchestrated (if you ignore all the cliches in the harp).

Curious brass fanfares and heavy weather are part of the fun. But the piece ends in defeat. A robust hero is reduced to a vanishing thin line rising in the violins and three bare and barely audible low notes in the cellos and basses.

Salonen's performance was a sound picture, wonderfully and boldly played, as was the Third Symphony. Like "Pohjola's Daughter," this, the least played of the symphonies (the Philharmonic didn't get around to it until 1958 and assigned it to an assistant conductor, John Barnett), begins in relatively good spirits, and Salonen's crisp rhythms and clarity of texture made it fresh.

The second movement is folklike, only a little strange. But there are already hints of a composer having difficulty staying grounded. In the last movement, he can't seem to complete some thoughts and is reluctant to let others, which he keeps repeating, go.

The First Symphony has other issues. It is Sibelius at his most romantic. Tchaikovsky is an influence. Salonen purged the score of sentimentality but not bombast. He made some startlingly forceful attacks. He did not swoon over the big tunes, although he did allow broad melodies to be broad. He attacked accents with the force of hammer blows.

His heart may not have been in this symphony, or the orchestra may have simply reached one of those lulls that occur in any kind of marathon. The playing sometimes sounded as if it needed more focus, especially in the Scherzo.

The symphony begins with a long, lonely clarinet solo accompanied by a low timpani rumble. Each note from principal clarinetist Michele Zukovksy hung in the air like a pearl of water before dissolving into a cloud. The sense of expectation, though not perhaps fully fulfilled, was exquisite.

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