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Flying over Finland

Sibelius Symphonies 2 and 7, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Oramo,

6 January 2018

Conductor Sakari Oramo, credits: Ellis O'Brien

In 1906 a book ‘Wonderful Adventures of Nils’ (‘Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige’) by Selma Lagerlöf was published. In this book a young boy diminished in size after a hoax and joined a flock of wilde geese to fly over Sweden. The book was originally intended to let young children know different areas of the country and make them realize how wonderful it is, and was then translated to many languages. Reading it in Russian as a kid, I always wondered how that would feel to see rivers, forests, sunsets and sunrises at a bird’s eye view. And it is quite strange to realize that I was allowed to get this mental perspective during a wonderful concert of BBC Symphony Orchestra (Sakari Oramo conducting) on 6 January 2018 at the Barbican centre. Being the last instalment of the Sibelus symphonies cycle by BBCSO and Oramo, it indeed was a final, overwhelming ascent to searing heights. One could say it was a flight over Finland, if it was not so much more, as the constant flux of sounds of BBS Symphony Orchestra and thrilling notes of that night’s vocals by Anu Komsi made us feel we were all synesthetic, suddenly able to see blues and whites of rivers and lakes, pearls and egg shells, stars and their reflections in still water of the night.

The concert opened with the Seventh Symphony (1924) by Jean Sibelius, that happened to be his final one, having a different title initially – Fantasia sinfonica. The composer felt that this title reflected its unity and flux of its tempi, whereas it starts and finishes with adagios, and comes through vivace, presto and vicacissiomo on its way as though there were hills and lawns to cross in its flow. And indeed, this imagery corresponds to the intentions of the composer voiced in his diary: ‘I should like to compare the symphony to a river. It is born from various rivulets that seek each other and in this way the river proceeds wide and powerful towards the sea’. The imagery of nature was inseparable from cognitive one in the composer’s mind, as these small rivulets were also thoughts and motifs and angles of view reflected in music, and that was what this river’s water was made of. During the opening of the evening Sakari Oramo proved that he possessed the vision required to follow this twisting line of this ‘river of thoughts’ and, never imposing himself on the music, he let us see how it develops and changes organically, encompassing many unexpected routes on its way. Helen Vollam, the principal trombone of BBCSO, also helped us to find our way in this land. Her instrument was like an underwater light through the symphonic masses of the Seventh, always re-appearing in different moments and finally bringing us to the vantage point of observing the path already trodden.

BBCSO and Sakari Oramo, Credits: Ellis O'Brien

The next synesthetic revelation of that evening was a symphonic poem Luonnotar (1913) by Sibelius based on the first runo of Kalevala that poetically envisions the creation of the world. It allowed us a luxury of another flight, as both the poem and the music were telling a story where the altitude was constantly changing. The story has an imagery vaguely similar to the Greek myth of Leda and Zeus. A maiden is tired of life in the sky and descends into the sea, where she becomes ‘the water mother’ and the gusts of winds are blowing and throwing her on the foamy waves (a myth of Aphrodite comes to mind). Then the gull appears and starts hatching on the maiden’s knee, and the top shell of the egg becomes a firmament, the upper part of the egg white the shining moon, and the speckles turn into stars in the sky. But it is only through music, it seems, that these ever-changing altitudes of mythological flight could be appreciated by all our senses. The soprano Anu Komsi, who herself looks like a goddess from Norse myths, led us through this symphonic poem slowly, carefully, always one step, one wing, one water splash or one musical note or phrase further. The gull’s shrill, almost unhuman ‘Ei! Ei! Ei!’ was sung by Komsi somewhere in the realms between sound and silence, where traces of vocal could still be heard while the singer seemingly was not delivering it any longer. Komsi let us understand the importance of long silences while the emotional impetus of music was being created, and led us through the birth of musical substance out of nothing as though it was she who was the mystical Lyonnotar herself.

Sakari Oramo and Anu Komsi

A Finnish flag was waved by patriots in the third row during the applause and elicited warm smiles from the conductor and singer alike. During the interval many listeners discussed those wondrous, unearthly sounds in Anu Komsi’s delivery and compared them to those from ‘Wing on Wing’ (2004) by Esa-Pekka Salonen where the same quality of Komsi’s vocal mastery (combined with that of her sister Piia) was used by a modern Finnish composer. After the break Komsi and Oramo surprised us with another piece also based on mythology, Ekho (1922) by Aarre Merikanto, which received its UK premiere that night. The imagery of this aria was drawn from the history the nymph Echo and her unrequited love for Narcissus. While the rhythm of Merikanto’s music was quicker and resembled a modernist tongue-twister, Komsi masterfully used many pointed silences and sudden bursts of singing to create an image of a desperate dance around the loved one, where it is Ekho who becomes the gull from the previous piece and tries to vocalize her longing in ‘huu-huu, huh-huu’ bird-like sounds.

And finally, it was Sakari Oramo’s turn to make us marvel again, as he led us through the delights of The Second Symphony (1901-2) by Sibelius. If one decides not to delve into political interpretatons of this symphony, it is interesting to trace how it, quite similarly to the Seventh, combines the imagery of nature and movement with the that of crystallization of thought from chaos. It has been called Sibelius’s ‘Italian’ Symphony and the voyage of Don Juan (brought to life as much by Byron, as by Strauss and Nietzsche) through the expanses of the world could be imposed on beautiful music. Here one could easily continue exploring one’s visualization skills through trying to distinguigh beautiful water springs and sun-lit landscapes. But one could also see this symphonic piece as a path to understanding of one’s goal and one’s sense of direction which appears as an organic result of previous small influences, musical steps and explored roads and by-ways. Sakari Oramo proved he knew where this symphony could be leading us, being aware of its scope and mapping it carefully in every small passage. The conductor made the musicians extract unbelievable moments of solid beauty on this journey, sometimes making us feel we were surfing on green grass or emerald waves. While being constantly drawn further, we were always allowed to look around and drift in awe, feeling indeed like Nils flying over the land that could be Sweden, Italy, Finland or any other place where imagination could bring us.

Final applause. Credits: Ellis O'Brien

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