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Out from under the spell of Sibelius

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Esa-Pekka Salonen finally makes his peace with the towering Finnish composer.

October 30, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Philharmonic's "Sibelius Unbound" series began late last month with marvelously silly swans flapping through the finale of the triumphant Fifth Symphony.

Seven symphonies, a string quartet and handful of symphonic poems later -- along with modern Finnish music and a Steven Stucky world premiere -- "Sibelius Unbound" ended again with the Fifth on Friday night.

Sans swans. But not sans marvels or triumphs.

The Fifth has a heroic ending. The horns intone a swaying phrase that loops around on itself.

Sibelius said he was thinking of the swans he loved to watch outside his home in the countryside outside Helsinki.

The theme has been dubbed the "swan hymn."

That opening concert a month ago was a Saturday morning program for children, conducted with robust good nature by Lionel Bringuier, the orchestra's impressive new assistant conductor.

The actor Rob Bowers set the scene for the Fifth's finale -- blowing wind, gliding swans -- and had us all gleefully flap our arms to the music.

Then, in two weeks of concerts with the Philharmonic and the Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra from Finland, Esa-Pekka Salonen did what needed to be done: In Friday's startlingly focused performance of the Fifth -- the Philharmonic's last concert at home before a European tour -- he killed the swans. Six hammer blows end the symphony. Sudden, sharp and shocking, they stopped time and a listener's breath. Nothing could fly after that.

Sentiment, and those swans, have stuck to Sibelius like a rancid glue.

Hearing Sibelius' music for the first time on a visit to Helsinki in 1907, Mahler called it "just ordinary 'kitsch,' spiced with certain 'Nordic' orchestral touches like a kind of a national sauce." Mahler later warmed to Sibelius somewhat, but getting over a very bad first impression of him is something many, in and out of Finland, have had to do.

After rehearsing the orchestra for its tour Friday, Salonen took a few moments in the afternoon to speak about his relationship to Sibelius and how it had felt to immerse himself in the works of his homeland's great national figure.

"I went through ups and downs with Sibelius in my youth, especially downs," he began, drinking Perrier in his office. "First of all, when you grow up in a landscape completely saturated with something, I think the only sane or normal reaction is to rebel."

No Finn can escape the dour, looming presence of the composer who played a significant role in giving a small young country its national voice early in the 20th century.

Salonen attended the Sibelius Academy. He studied horn with a musician who had played under Robert Kajanus, a conductor who was very close to Sibelius and who made landmark recordings of some of the symphonies in the early 1930s.

Some of the currency in Salonen's pocket had Sibelius' portrait on it.

Growing up in the shadow of Sibelius, Salonen and his school pals -- notably the composers Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho -- rejected not just Sibelius but what Salonen described as "the whole Sibelian value system that says only the symphony is a valuable piece of music and that only symphonic form is the one to aspire to. Real composers were the guys who wrote symphonies."

To Salonen, real composers were the guys who wrote pieces with titles like "Pli Selon Pli," Pierre Boulez's great orchestral score.

"I was very deeply influenced by Boulez and all these guys who put Sibelius very low down on the list of the canon," Salonen explained. "And I parodied their opinions: 'muddy orchestration,' 'ultraconservative provincial tonality' and so on. Of course, I couldn't see what was new and what was important in the music then.

"But I had a funny experience in Milan," where Salonen went to study with the avant-garde Italian composer Niccolo Castiglioni after graduating from the Sibelius Academy.

"I went past a secondhand bookshop near La Scala, and there was a tiny pocket score of the Fifth. It was cheap, so I bought it.

"I started reading the score on the bus to my house outside Milan. I was amazed. It looks so different from any other music on the page. The way things go together and the way one thing follows another thing is unique."

Still, as a young conductor, Salonen pretty much avoided Sibelius.

"I didn't feel it came naturally to me," he said. He did record the Fifth in 1986 with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London. "It was done without a concert, in the studio, and very heavily edited," he confessed a little sheepishly. "I mean really heavily edited." He has shied away from recording any more of the symphonies until now: The Philharmonic is releasing the Second Symphony from concerts two weeks ago on iTunes today.

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