An adventurous start to the Philharmonia Orchestra's 2017-2018 season with an imaginative mini-festival "Nordic Music Days" curated in part by Esa-Pekka Salonen. For this opening concert, darkness fell on the Royal Festival Hall, and from the gloom the Arctic Lights of the Aurora Borealis glowed in vivid colours above the orchestra. A wonderful introduction to a very creative programme. Salonen conducted Sibelius Symphonies no 6 and 7, and two works new to London audiences, Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Aeriality and Daniel Bjarnason 's Violin Concerto commissioned for the soloist Pekka Kuusisto.
Every Finnish musician has Sibelius embedded into their psyche. Father figures are wonderful things, but you need to become yourself, just as they did in their own time. Thus when Salonen returned to conducting Sibelius in his late 30's, he could approach the master with fresh perspectives. Salonen's Sibelius can be bracing, as original and as uncompromising as Sibelius was himself in his own time. Salonen's Sibelius series at the Barbican, many years ago, was a shock to some, but like clear, pure Arctic air, it was extremely invigorating.
Sibelius famously compared his Sixth symphony to "pure, cold water" as opposed to the fancy cocktails popular in the 1920's. It springs, as if from some deep source of primal inspiration. Here, it flowed freely, the Philharmonia capturing its unique modal harmonies. Thorvaldsdottir’s Aeriality (2011) might also connect to Nature. Figures bubbled up from depths, breaking into sparkling outbursts. My partner commented "Jón Leifs", the Icelandic Sibelius, who turned landscape into music.
Pekka Kuusisto is one of Nature's originals, too. His love for music is so intense that he communicates enthusiasm not only through his playing but through his personality. The first time I heard him, he looked like Puck, and his personality radiated musicality. He introduced Rautavaara's The Fiddlers with great insight, explaining the role of fiddlers in Finnish culture, and demonstrated techniques. Kuusisto is what music education should be. One Kuusisto is worth a thousand pretentious suits dumbing things down. Kuusisto genuinely loves what he does and that's what shines through.
Bjarnason's Violin Concerto is also quite unlike the average violin concerto. Kuusisto bows odd angles as if settling into some kind of symbiotic bond with his instrument. A pattern gradually emerges, but what are we hearing? Wailing sounds, whistling, like the exhalation of a wind instrument connected to strings and bow. The woodwinds were playing, but Kuusisto was singing along ! In his black jacket, not unlike the costumes medieval fiddlers used to wear, it seemed as though an ancient figure had materialized on the RFH platform. The piece seems to move in stages, almost like a ritual, the violin taking on different identities. At times, Kuusisto played oddly grotesque sounds which defy description, from which snatches of melody start to coalesce. Sculpting music from rough wood, I thought. Very organic! Using different techniques, Kuusisto seemed to transform his instrument into other, more esoteric instruments. Sometimes, perhaps we heard a lute, sometimes a kantele. I swear I heard an erhu at the end. Overall, the piece flowed extremely well, as if a world of stringed folk instruments were playing together in strange unity.
And thus to Sibelius Symphony no 7, a work so audaciously original that Sibelius, always hard on himself, might have found difficult to surpass. It is monumental: wild and craggy yet meticulously structured. A good performance, spoiled as it reached its climax by mindless premature applause.