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S & H Festival Review

A Stradivarius In A Glass Box: Lahti Sibelius Festival, 4th – 6th September 2003 (BK)


 



The Finnish city of Lahti, about 110 kilometres north-east of Helsinki, has three particular claims to fame just now. It has the Olympic-standard ski jumps which dominate its sky line, the Lahti Sinfonia and Osmo Vänskä, and it has the remarkable new concert hall, Sibeliustalo, which is the orchestra’s home. Locals call the new building ‘A Stradivarius in a Glass Box,’ because of its construction and acoustic.

To coincide with the concert hall’s opening in 2000, Lahti launched an annual Sibelius Festival for which Vänskä and the orchestra provide the backbone. The festival takes place in early September and its principal component is always three days of orchestral music, with additional chamber performances, lectures and discussions about the composer’s life and works. There’s usually a public interview with Vänskä himself (in English) also where he discusses performing Sibelius.

Having provided a complete cycle of symphonies (except Kullervo) and the violin concerto (with Joshua Bell) in 2002, this year’s orchestral festival concentrated entirely on Sibelius’ music for the stage. Harald Relander, the Festival’s President calls this a ‘brave idea’ in his programme note and it’s not difficult to see why: a three day programme of theatre music might well have been a commercial risk anywhere else but in Finland.

The brave idea paid off handsomely however, since Sibeliophiles turned up in numbers for these lesser known pieces. Day 1 had the Karelia Overture Op.10, The Maiden in the Tower and the King Christian II Suite Op.27. Day 2 offered Snöfrid Op.29, an ‘improvisation for mixed choir, narrator and orchestra,’ some music for the play Kuolema (Death) including the ‘Valse Triste’, The Wood-Nymph Op.15 and Everyman Op.83. The festival concluded with Cassazione, Op 6, a piece simply called Cortège written in 1905 to honour the retiring director of the Finnish National Theatre, and the music for The Tempest Op.109. It was a lot to take in all at once though, even if some of the music was familiar from Vänskä’s BIS recordings.

Sibeliustalo (there are neither definite nor indefinite articles in Finnish) is a splendid building designed by the Finnish architects Hannu Tikka and Kimmo Lintu. Based on a former factory site standing by Lake Vesijärvi, the ‘Glass Box’ has commanding views of the lake and is equipped as a conference centre as well as a concert hall. There are many thoughtful touches included in the design: small lamps in the atrium’s ceiling for instance, are arranged to represent the star chart for Sibelius’ birthday, December 8th 1865. The ‘Stradivarius,’ the wooden 1250 seat auditorium, was acoustically engineered by Russell Johnston of Artec Consultants Inc. New York, who had previously worked on Birmingham’s Symphony Hall and the Royal Opera House, London. The acoustic works very well indeed, allowing some of the quietest orchestral playing I have ever experienced to be heard with complete clarity pretty well anywhere.

One of the endearing things about music in Finland is its small population (about five million people or so, much the same as Scotland.) Because of this, I often have a sense that artists there know one another well, which presumably irons out many difficulties in performances. Since most Finnish musicians study at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki as part of their training, it seems likely that shared traditions and shared awareness of new musical developments, each promote mutual understanding to a greater extent than elsewhere and this certainly seems so in Lahti. Vänskä’s relationship with the orchestra, of which he has been Chief Conductor since 1988, is clearly based on reciprocal respect and understanding. The sense of accord between artists though extends even further; to include the six solo singers who took part this year, to veteran actor Lasse Pöysti who narrated the spoken texts in Snöfrid and Everyman and perhaps even to Helsinki’s mixed voice Dominante choir, many of whom are not professionals. Perhaps the traditions are all-pervasive in Finland, and only intensified by shared training.

How did the 2003 festival match its President’s vision? In terms of the performance standards, there was little to criticise. There was a wealth of fine singing from Helena Juntunen (sop), from Laura Nykänen (mezzo), from Jaakko Kortekangas (baritone) and from the three tenors, Jyrki Anttila, Anssi Hirvonen and Petri Lehto (who also plays the double bass in the orchestra.) Lasse Pöysti declaimed his narratives with wonderful sonority and a fine contextual sense which fitted the music perfectly, and Dominante (mostly students from Helsinki’s Technical University and obviously an accomplished group) demonstrated excellent tuning and ensemble. The orchestra (as usual) was essentially faultless.

In terms of repertoire and some aspects of organisation though, questions might be raised if the festival is to reach a wider international audience in the future. While it is clear that each of the programmed pieces are decent enough in themselves, collectively they required wilful concentration. Even though I understand a small (very modest) amount of Finnish and knew most of this year’s programme from the BIS recordings, I would never play these works together over three consecutive evenings. They are theatre music after all, and really do need complementing either by their contexts or by non-theatrical works. The only example this year was the annual performance of Finlandia which always closes the orchestral festival.

The festival’s organisation could be improved too. Booking tickets is easy enough by e-mailing kristiina.palvinen@lahti.fi but paying for them means sending a banker’s draft to the Lahti Municipal Treasurer’s Department which is tedious. An alternative way of obtaining tickets is from the English pages of Helsinki’s on-line ticket agency at www.lippupalvelu.fi. That does take credit cards but this year it steadfastly refused to let me order more than one concert at a time and seemed to have lost its contact telephone number. The other quirk (given that most Finns speak other European languages very well) is that all the tannoy announcements at the concerts are usually in Finnish including one last year about a change to one of the programmed start times.

Having said these things, the Lahti Sibelius Festival is a great musical event from which it is relatively easy to visit Hameenlinna where Sibelius was born and also Ainola, his house at Järvenpää. Next year’s programme will be more familiar to many: it’s between September 2nd and 4th and includes Night Ride and Sunrise, two versions of En Saga, Pohjola’s Daughter, Tapiola and The Oceanides. To find out more follow the links on the English pages of www.lahti.fi/symphony

Bill Kenny


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