Do not be surprised if you see open weeping at the Richmond Symphony's Nov. 20 concert. Something about Sibelius' Second Symphony goes straight to the hearts of some listeners. Okay, not just some listeners me. In our phone interview, I tell Barbara Yahr that I'm embarrassed to admit this turn-of-the-century work is actually my favorite symphony. It's not what you're supposed to say you're supposed to pick a symphony by Beethoven, or a composition by Berlioz, music that, on the surface, is more apparently intellectual.
But Yahr empathizes with my affection for Sibelius and pooh-poohs any pretense at being embarrassed. "Sibelius is such an interesting composer," she says. She notes that our parents' generation knew of a only few works by Sibelius and that these works were played over and over again. Everyone was satisfied with the Finn's position in the musical canon. Then, Yahr points out, a kind of reevaluation occurred. "Bernstein ... [and other] conductors in the '60's started playing all the [Sibelius] symphonies."
She refers me to the Fourth Symphony, which she calls "stark and bleak," and indeed, a lot of Sibelius' writing is dense and austere all at the same time. What can confound a listener is the application of avant-garde compositional techniques to late-Romantic melodic material.
"If you really look at it in this context, [the Second Symphony] is really an interesting piece," Yahr continues. Does this symphony have a reputation for being sentimental? That reputation might come from the last movement, which rivals anything by Tchaikovsky or Dvorak in rhapsodic content. It is, in a word, gushy.
But rather than gushy, we could describe it as luxurious, sweeping, even epic. It's an outpouring of emotion and passion, long, ravishing melodies, the entire string ensemble in unison, punctuated with excited, even happy proclamations from the brass. "What's wrong with an outpouring?" asks Yahr. And she reminds me that "the rest of the score is very abstract. ... it doesn't just serve itself up" for easy digestion.
This might disconcert listeners who have been fed an unceasing diet of Germanic composers Bach, Beethoven, Brahms. Not that these titans are easily digested, but if we think of music spatially, their ideas can seem squarer, more easily compartmentalized, able to fit under our microscopes. Sibelius bursts at the seams, overflows the banks, chokes the pasture with a riot of overgrown seedlings that sprang up where they were not supposed to. The organic metaphors are
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