Sibelius at 150: Probing Depths Of The 7 Symphonies

The Seattle Symphony and conductor Thomas Dausgaard began their three-week Sibelius Festival on March 12.  (Photos by Brandon Patoc Photography)
The Seattle Symphony and conductor Thomas Dausgaard began their three-week Sibelius Festival on March 12.
(Photos by Brandon Patoc Photography)
By Jason Victor Serinus

SEATTLE — Hard to believe, but during this 150th anniversary year of the birth of Jean Sibelius, only one orchestra in North America — the Seattle Symphony — is honoring the composer’s sesquicentennial by performing all of his symphonies over a three-week period. Seattle not only surveys all seven symphonies consecutively March 12-28, but also assays Sibelius’ early Finlandia (including a performance in the “Symphony Untuxed” series that enlists the community choirs and the Seattle Symphony Chorale), the Violin Concerto (with soloist Pekka Kuusisto), and three chamber works.

Thomas Dausgaard conducting the Seattle Symphony.
Thomas Dausgaard conducting the Seattle Symphony.

Equally surprising, the entire tribute, entitled “Luminous Landscapes: The Sibelius Symphonies,” has been entrusted not to music director Ludovic Morlot, but to new principal guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard. It seems that Dausgaard’s rapport with the orchestra was so positive during his previous visits that, for his first year in his Seattle post, Morlot decided to give him an extended opportunity to work with the orchestra and tune its sound to his liking. Morlot, in turn, had expected to be conducting at La Monnaie in Belgium in late March, but his December 2014 resignation (see here) put an end to that.

Dausgaard, chief conductor of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, conductor laureate of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, and future conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (succeeding Donald Runnicles), has spent multiple decades pondering and performing Sibelius’ oeuvre. His dedication was evident in his largely thrilling opening night performance, discussed in detail below. His success is especially notable given that many aspects of Sibelius’ music initially puzzled him.

“How can you end the Violin Concerto so abruptly?” he asked during a phone interview which took place one week before opening night.  “How can you have these strange chords at the end of the Fifth Symphony and call it an ending? There was an element of irrationality which intrigued me a lot.”

“Irrationality,” of course, is in the mind of beholder. Asked to explain his use of the term, Dausgaard replied, “Imagine there is a melody of some kind. At the same time, there may be a regular, four-bar theme or pattern with a certain predictability to it. Then underneath, there may be a long note from the trumpet that comes in, perhaps at the second bar. The phrase may have a direction to the third bar, but the trumpet will have a crescendo that extends way beyond the phrase and seems to live in its own world. On top of that, some very fast movements will begin in the woodwinds, and they will have a third direction all their own.”

An exhibition about Sibelius is part of the festival at Benaroya Hall.
An exhibition about Sibelius is part of the festival in the lobby at Benaroya Hall.

Dausgaard considers such three-dimensional orchestral writing, where lines move independently of each other, to have an element of the irrational because its development defies predictability. Yet, even though Sibelius’ lines may move in different directions, Dausgaard finds a subconscious appeal to the whole that nonetheless leaves listeners alert to multiple musical events and undercurrents.

Two of Sibelius’ other signature methods, in Dausgaard’s opinion, are to repeat motives or notes endlessly, beyond what many would consider “acceptable,” and then (somewhat paradoxically) to stop the music completely, engaging in silence. Dausgaard equates these techniques with those used in shamanic rituals.

“Sibelius sticks with the same rhythm or same little glimpse of a melody until, after a while, we are in a kind of trance, without really knowing how it happened,” he said. “His music penetrates the conscious mind and reaches into the subconscious in a way that is both very fascinating and mesmerizing. (Similarly), the incredibly intense silences in his music, both at the ends of and inside the movements, are some of the most potent I can think of. He is a real master of these silences, which I think have to do with the kind of minimal sounds you can find in nature and some of the places where he lived.”

Audience members may leave impressions of Sibelius on windows.
Audience members may leave impressions of Sibelius on windows.

Dausgaard recalls the time when he visited the Faroe Islands, which lie between Norway and Iceland, to attend a wedding where celebrants endlessly danced two steps forward and then one back. “I took me awhile to get the hang of it,” he said, “but eventually I forgot what I was doing and found myself in a trance. I often think of that dance with Sibelius.

“(Sibelius offers) an emotional experience where we are challenged, sometimes a little uncomfortably, because we may not fully understand what he is doing,” he said. “There’s something appealing and dangerous about his music. It’s about more than beauty. He engages with all aspects of life, and he’s not afraid of putting them into music. That includes the silences.”

Invaluable insights, to be sure, from a conductor clearly dedicated to illuminating life’s mysteries through music. But what raises those perceptions above the level of the academic is how Dausgaard translated them into music in his March 12 opening night performances of Finlandia and the Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2.

Dausgaard’s masterful ability to bring out the complex, contrasting lines of Sibelius’ scores without either sounding in the least self-conscious or precious, or losing sight of the main argument (however shifting it might have been), made for a thrilling evening. In Finlandia, for example, Sibelius’ all-important trombones and tubas declaimed with exceptional strength, and contrasted beautifully with the softer, more pastel colors of the woodwinds. Time and again, Dausgaard honored Sibelius’ oft-discussed synesthesia — his involuntary ability to instantly see sound as colors — with an exceptionally wide and finely delineated color palette that was a pleasure to experience.

Jean Sibelius, a 150-year birthday boy this year.
Jean Sibelius, whose 150th birthday is being marked in 2015.

Dynamic contrasts, too, were one of Dausgaard’s strengths. Especially in the Symphony No. 2, the progression from hushed strings to triple forte, achieved without audible effort or loss of tonal luster, was exceptional. Dausgaard made clear why even the finest high-resolution audio reproduction can only approximate the visceral and emotional impact of live performance.

Nonetheless, in Finlandia, issues emerged. While some conductors slow down and linger in the middle “hymn” section, Dausgaard instead chose to go for maximum impact. As rousing as the resultant performance may have been — it induced the audience to give Sibelius’ eight-minute patriotic call to attention the first of several standing ovations — its fervor could not obscure the monotonous  manner in which the orchestra approached repeated notes, and an interpretation that aimed more for the gut than the heart.

All that seemed to change with the beautiful, searching clarinet soliloquy at the start of the Symphony No. 1, where Dausgaard allowed principal Ben Lulich to take his time. But as the symphony progressed and any number of storms swept across the landscape, too many presto passages took on a frantic quality that seemed at odds with the musical argument. Nonetheless, Dausgaard’s ability to bring out the mysterious and disturbing undercurrents beneath Sibelius’ heart-tugging melodies and energetic outpourings gave the performance a depth beyond the symphony’s rather schizophrenic, rapid shift from one idea to the next.

In the Second Symphony, as wonderfully as Dausgaard conveyed the first movement’s waves of passion, his resistance to lingering left the performance feeling somewhat ungrounded. All that changed midway into the second movement, where conductor and orchestra sank deeply into the music, and delineated Sibelius’ masterful thematic development in a most soulful manner. The playing was gorgeous, and the mysterious silences eloquent.

The Seattle Symphony and Thomas Dausgaard will play all of the Sibelius symphonies.
The Seattle Symphony and Thomas Dausgaard will play all of the Sibelius symphonies.

The Seattle Symphony’s cello section outdid itself in the final movement, producing a lush foundation that, in quieter sections, was as wondrous as it was mesmerizing. The only misstep in an otherwise thrilling, multi-dimensional performance came towards the end. After the strings’ sensational ascent to fortissimo — the playing was so loud and yet so controlled that it seemed to defy what is possible — and an equally startling assault from brass and winds, Dausgaard had nowhere left to go. The close seemed less exultant than anti-climactic.

As in the case of hearing a coloratura soprano whose rendition of an operatic mad scene is magnificent until she falls apart on the final high E-flat, it is impossible to pretend that the concert’s ending wasn’t a bit of a letdown. Nonetheless, what remains lodged in the memory and heart, after the dust kicked up by the brass has settled, are the beauty of the Seattle Symphony’s playing, the depth and spiritual integrity of Dausgaard’s inquiry, and the rare privilege to appreciate Sibelius’ evolution as a composer and speaker of truth via the dedicated efforts of a single conductor and orchestra. The bravos were well-deserved.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music and audio critic, lecturer on opera and vocal recordings, and award-winning professional whistler. His writing has appeared in San Francisco Classical Voice, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, AudioStream, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, California Magazine, Robb Report, and other publications. He edited the book Psychoimmunity and the Healing Process: A Holistic Approach to Immunity & AIDS. He resides in Oakland, CA, with his lawfully wedded husband and their two canine children.