Sibelius III: Reflections on the 2011 Bard Music Festival

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Jean Sibelius

Jean Sibelius

“I’d go anywhere to hear a Sibelius-palooza like this,” exclaimed Beth, a New York television producer and first-time Bard Festival visitor. Ernest, a veteran of many festivals and a geneticist in his 70s, credited Bard with inspiring him to revisit a childhood dream and take courses at Bard’s Conductor’s Institute.

Lisa from Woodstock usually opts for the popular music historically associated with her hometown, but she felt right at home in Bard’s scholarly community. Lydia, a marketer for Institutional Investor, enjoyed intense music discussions between students and scholars spilling over from classrooms into the cafeteria.

Such passionate enthusiasm typifies audience response at the yearly Bard Music Festival. According to artistic director Leon Botstein, the festival began 21 years ago with a modest agenda to expand the cultural resources of the Hudson Valley. Back then all the programs fit neatly into two weekends. Since then the festival has added a concomitant series of multimedia presentations, Summerscape, and grown into a six-week arts smorgasbord full of intellectual discoveries. This year the Bard Festival and Summerscape presented more than 12 mainstage concerts, 45 cabaret events, 16 film screenings, children’s performances, plays, dance performances, opera, pre-concert lectures, and symposia.

True to form, a single composer was chosen to be the focal point of an intensive cultural immersion. Heavyweights Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler and Debussy have held sway in recent years. This year’s featured composer was the enigmatic Finnish master, Jean Sibelius (1865–1957). The 12 main–stage concerts included a few popular favorites, such as Sibelius’s Finlandia and Valse Triste. But more often, as with past festivals, the programming took to roads less travelled. Yes, Scandinavia’s favorite musical landscaper was well represented by performances of four of his seven symphonies, several orchestral tone poems, and various songs and chamber music works.

But numerous other composers left strong impressions, too.

Ever heard of Melartin, Madetoja or Merikanto? Neither had I! These unknown M & M’s were all active Finnish composers during the first half of the 20th Century. Although none of them will likely achieve wide recognition, I am happy to have heard Merikanto’s expressionistic “Schott” Concerto of 1924. Conducted by assistant conductor Geoffrey McDonald (leader of Philadelphia’s Young Artists’ Orchestra), the relentless work reflected the strenuous styles of Schoenberg and Hindemith. Of the 33 other composers represented, I was happy to encounter offbeat and appealing works by Robert Fuchs, Ferruccio Busoni, Robert Kajanus, Johan Svendsen, Wilhelm Stenhammar, Kurt Atterberg and Karol Szymanowski.

Generally, all of the performances were good to excellent. But not all the selections were successful. The smart playing of duo pianists Orion Weiss and Anna Polonsky could not relieve the tedium of 18-year old Gustav Mahler’s two-piano arrangement of Bruckner’s Third Symphony. Thank goodness they played only the first movement. Conductor David Randolph once complained that “Wagner’s Parsifal is the kind of opera that starts at six o’clock and after it has been going three hours, you look at your watch and it says 6:20.” We’re with you on that, David.

What did Bruckner and Mahler have to do with Sibelius? In 1890 at age 24, Sibelius studied for a year in Vienna, where he heard much Bruckner and met Mahler. All three composers share a feeling for monumentality and rhapsodic organization of time, and all three frequently use moments of quiet and silence in effective ways.

Amongst the audience, reverent attention was paid during Bard concerts, but there was no quietude during the intermissions. I greatly enjoyed overhearing other audience members jabber like sports fans. It’s not every day that classical music audiences vent so passionately. Hugo Wolf once vociferously attacked the common practice of gratuitous applause. He would have been pleased by Bard audiences’ high level of mindful engagement.

Among the finest performances was Edward Arron’s stirring presentation of Karl Goldmark’s big-boned romantic Cello Sonata. Other exceptional performances came from two superlative singers: German soprano Christiane Libor and Finnish mezzo-soprano Melis Jaatinen. Libor’s high point came in the first concert, with her commanding performance of Sibelius’s Luonnotar (1896). Luonnotar (a female nature spirit) is a creation myth that describes the birth of the world. Jaatinen excelled in Grieg’s song cycle Haugtussa (The Mountain Maid), also from 1896. I’ve heard stellar performances of these songs by Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson and Lauritz Melchior, but none were more fetching than Jaatinen’s. I don’t expect to hear her stylish renditions matched again. There were many other highlights from both the chamber music and orchestral concerts performed by Leon Botstein with his outstanding American Symphony.

As mentioned above, the Festival had more than classical music. World music adventurers found Irish Irish ceilli music, Jewish klezmer, West African balafon, Punjabi hip-hop, Latin funk, and Serbian anthems. And those just at the Thursday night cabarets!  With artists and performances changing daily, one could easily encounter equally diverse offerings every other night of the week, as well.

As usual, scholarly presentations played a large role at the festival. Among the many fine lecturers, Jeffrey Kallberg (University of PA), Christopher Gibbs (Philadelphia Orchestra program notes writer), Daniel Grimley (Festival Scholar in Residence) and Glenda Dawn Goss impressed with their erudition and audience appeal. Byron Adams drew positive attention for his passionate stance against bigoted composers, such as Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867–1944) and Kurt Atterberg (1887–1974), but he seemed unnecessarily preachy when advocating censure of the minor composer Yrjö Kilpinen (1892–1959) on account of Kilpinen’s association with the Nazis. Regardless of the composer’s moral lapses, Kilpinen’s two songs—Lalulle (To the song) and Tunturille—(Away to the Mountains) will doubtless continue to earn neglect on their own merits.

A recurring flashpoint for discussion throughout the festival concerned Sibelius’s near-complete withdrawal from music composition at the age of 61. Heavy drinking, chronic depression, feelings of irrelevance and constant money problems took considerable toll and contributed to Sibelius’s 30-year dry spell. He once had youthful dreams of becoming a violin virtuoso, and was greatly saddened when he failed to land a job playing in the Vienna Philharmonic. As evidenced by his diaries, these frustrated dreams never faded despite his greater accomplishments as a composer. Never mind! We are the beneficiaries of his career shift. Sibelius’s inner life may have been as haunted as his spectral landscapes, and the quality of his compositions was glaringly uneven. But never alarmingly so.

Indeed, questions about the quality of Sibelius’ music were largely overridden by the eclecticism of Festival offerings. Acknowledged masterpieces such as the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies did indeed shine. But again and again, it was the search for context that provided the greatest rewards. Botstein frequently stresses the importance of connecting composers with the social, political, aesthetic and religious issues of their times. His profuse commitment was driven home at every point. Consequently this listener – and I suspect many others – started to listen differently both to the masterpieces and the also-rans.

Sibelius, along with almost every other composer during the past 150 years, was greatest affected by 19th-Century nationalist movements as well as by the 20th Century Great Wars that followed in their wake. His biggest hit, Finlandia (1900), became an aural icon throughout the country at a time when Finland was just finding its distinct identity and at the same time that the 35-year-old composer was polishing his compositional chops. Finlandia fairly well locked in Sibelius’ reputation as the senior founding father of Finnish nationalism, a fame with which he was never entirely comfortable.

Here came the context-building twist: at the lead-off concert, Botstein prefaced his performance of Finlandia with an audience sing-along of the original nationalistic text (optional Finnish text was available for the adventurous). Instantly, the hackneyed orchestral showpiece was transformed into an inspiriting cri de coeur. Instantly we all became participants in epic history. We heard the piece with new ears and became freshly engaged in the music’s re-recreation.

Of course, nationalism had a dark side, too, as was made painfully clear by a later performance of the rarely heard March of the Finnish Hunters Battalion (1917), a piece of Sibelian claptrap written to celebrate an elite Finnish fighting corps trained in Germany to combat the Bolsheviks. Sibelius might have wished to withdraw the work the following year, when the Bolsheviks ransacked his home during the horrific Finnish Civil War.

The moral to the story?

The mixed lessons of Finlandia and the Hunters March might well be studied by today’s proponents of identity-driven politics in the Middle East, U.S. or any place where tribal impulses overwhelm compassion and appreciation of the common threads among all peoples.

Every concert has a political agenda, whether the agenda is declared or undeclared. The old fashioned notion of art for art’s sake is dangerously elitist and misspeaks the animating impulses of most composers. We should expect more communicative thrust than reheated Overture-Concerto-Symphony concert formats provide. It’s time to support carefully curated concerts that reach beyond the notes.

In the end, what came through most about Sibelius at the Bard Festival were his unique sound, his ties with nature, his modernism after the model of late Beethoven, his skill and delight in the craft of orchestration, and his exuberant affirmation of life.


About the author

Karl Middleman

Known as an extremely versatile musician, Karl Middleman is familiar to classical music audiences as a conductor of many orchestras and choirs. The Suddeutsche Zeitung in Munich acclaimed Karl Middleman’s conducting as “resolute and impressive.” “Energetic, vivid, and hugely satisfying,” praised the Turkish Times.

A career educator, he has served on the faculties of Arcadia University, Cabrini, Philadelphia and Montgomery County Community Colleges. Currently he teaches at Temple University.

Recently he served as Arts Advocate and Trainer for the ‘Classroom Arts Project’ of Partners in Distance Learning, as well as Scholar in Known as an extremely versatile musician, Karl Middleman is familiar to classical music audiences as a conductor of many orchestras and choirs. The Suddeutsche Zeitung in Munich acclaimed Karl Middleman’s conducting as “resolute and impressive.” “Energetic, vivid, and hugely satisfying,” praised the Turkish Times.

A career educator, he has served on the faculties of Arcadia University, Cabrini, Philadelphia and Montgomery County Community Colleges. Currently he teaches at Temple University. Recently he served as Arts Advocate and Trainer for the ‘Classroom Arts Project’ of Partners in Distance Learning, as well as Scholar in Residence for the South Jersey and Philadelphia Jewish Community Centers. Currently he is a Commonwealth Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. His “Dvorak in America,” TV program for PHC will be broadcast on Pennsylvania Cable Network in December 2011.

He is a regular workshop leader for Pendle Hill Retreat Center, where he teaches courses on music and aesthetics.

In 1994 Middleman initiated a series of legendary concerts with the Philadelphia Classical Symphony, mixing scholarship with showmanship. Middleman’s thematic concerts with that ensemble are noted for their spirited intellectual inquiry and for the bold, revelatory ways they reframe the essential classical music experience for seasoned as well as novice listeners.

He is a recipient of many awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. His artistry has been recently cited in 19th-Century Music and Philadelphia Magazine, from which his work with the Classical Symphony was twice awarded “Best of Philly.”

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