By Phyllis Nordstrom
Portland, ME. 24 January 2012. Most people who enjoy classical music think of Finlandia when they hear the name of composer Jean Sibelius (1865 - 1957). While Sibelius is best known for his patriotic landscapes and tributes, the Concerto for Violin reveals his true Self – his deep passion for the violin. Along with the Portland Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Christopher Warren-Green, violin soloist Steven Moeckel paid Sibelius a sublime tribute for their shared passion.
The Concerto for Violin in d minor, Op. 47, is the only concerto written by Sibelius. He chose the instrument he loved best, but could never completely master – the violin. Through this composition he seems to say, "If I were a virtuoso, I would play this." Moeckel played for Sibelius, and I hope Sibelius was listening.
In a pre-concert discussion, Moeckel noted that he had sung with the Vienna Boys Choir as a youth, and that in his experience singing is terrific training for an instrumentalist, developing the ability to bring the music from within and send it out into the world. Moeckel’s instrument truly sang. This concerto is known to favor the soloist, with the orchestra in more of a shadow role. The first solo violin passage was so electrifying, so absurdly innovative, that I felt compelled to break into applause before the end of the movement, much like audiences do when a skater lands a triple Lutz or a ballerina completes 32 pirouettes before rejoining the corps de ballet. It was of course forgivable that the audience did break into applause after the first movement.
Leading up to the masterful concerto, the program opened with an introduction to Sibelius via the Karelia Suite, a work of three movements extracted from a longer commissioned work as a tribute to the Karelia region of Finland. These may be Sibelius's three favorite movements, but the unity of the original tribute was compromised by the extraction. The work opens with deep, confident horns – not overpowering, but commanding – a grand, yet reserved opening. The second movement was somber and mesmerizing. The disunity of sound in motion – from a mournful oboe to the cheerful provincial march of the third movement – was jarring; no segue. Nevertheless, as one settled in to the third movement, the long, luscious bowing of the strings was worth it. I find Sibelius to be one of the most accessible composers of the late romantic period, and should be remembered for much more than Finlandia.
The second half of the program was Antonín Dvorák‘s Symphony No. 7 in d minor, Op. 70. Dvorák (1841 – 1904) and Sibelius composed at about the same time, but Dvorák was a much more mature composer. Symphony No. 7 is a favorite with orchestra members, but perhaps less so with the people who listen to them. While the work may be challenging and rewarding to play, I find its opening movement lacking in unity of purpose, producing a stream of consciousness that I find mildly annoying in late Romantic composers. The music only became fully conscious in the third movement. Romanticism evolving into Impressionism often results in a “tone poem” quality. Perhaps this is due to Dvorák’s "font of limitless ideas", as described in the program notes. However, I missed the "powerful, logical continuity" also suggested in those notes.
The symphony gave the impression of a landscape painting with no focal point – too many trees, an overabundance of birds, coagulations of clouds – the artist being careful to represent every single aspect of nature. But without the selective process of the artist, nothing comes into focus, no statement is made. Symphony No. 7 is a forest of complexity, perhaps lost on those who feel safer in an arboretum.
This is not to take anything away from the performance of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra was most ably conducted by Maestro Christopher Warren-Green, his career and frequent flyer miles demonstrating the global, universal appeal of classical music. Warren-Green’s "pop star" classical conductor credentials were earned by having conducted the London Chamber Orchestra during the marriage ceremony of HRH Prince William Duke of Cambridge and HRH Duchess of Cambridge at Westminster Abbey last April. As he said in his pre-concert comments, "Music is a giving profession". This performance was indeed a gift.
Venue: Merrill Auditorium, 8:00 pm