It seems as if the entire world of classical music might grind to a halt if anniversaries and birthdays could no longer be used as programming hooks.
At its worst, the Birthday Game is an excuse for lazy programming. At best, it’s an opportunity for an ensemble to present some unusual repertoire, and that, happily, is what Osmo Vänskä is doing with the Minnesota Orchestra this season with its commemoration of Sibelius’s 150th birthday (the actual date of birth being Dec. 8, 1865).
Given Vänskä’s eminence as an interpreter of Sibelius’s music, which dates to the conductor’s remarkable recordings in Finland with the Lahti Symphony, this particular birthday connection seems less contrived, less an act of desperation in the marketing department, than many similar efforts.
This week’s program, for instance, explores what the orchestra is calling “Sibelius miniatures.” Three of the works are tone poems — symphonic poems, as they are sometimes called — music that tells a story or paints a picture. Though they are seldom played, these are among this composer’s greatest works, especially the later ones such as “Pohjola’s Daughter” and, the last major piece Sibelius wrote (in 1926), “Tapiola.”
Writing these works gave Sibelius the chance to explore and express his lifelong interest in Finnish mythology and folklore. Vänskä seemed to be underlining that fact at Orchestra Hall Thursday morning: that these are stories, vivid ones, and they need to be expressed in bright, brilliant colors. As a result, it was as if we could actually see the beautiful maiden, Pohjola’s daughter, sitting on a rainbow, spinning gold, her laughter described in descending passages of chuckling woodwinds. Principal cello Anthony Ross’ lush, atmospheric treatment of the recitative that opens the piece established just the right mood and image: tales told around the campfire late at night.
The rarest item in this beguiling and beautifully played program was the set of Six Humoresques for which the Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud was the soloist. The tone of these brief pieces varies. Some are sprightly, others wistful. They display a charm we don’t often associate with Sibelius. It’s odd that they aren’t in every top violinist’s repertoire. Kraggerud, whose technique is effortless, easily captured the music’s spry wit.
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis music writer.