Jean Sibelius is a specialty of the house at Orchestra Hall.
Over the course of Osmo Vänskä's 19 years as music director, the Minnesota Orchestra's interpretations of Finland's national composer have brought the ensemble international renown, as well as a Grammy Award and other honors.
Starting Friday night, audiences have the opportunity to go deep with the orchestra's mastery of Sibelius, as Vänskä will conduct a three-week Sibelius Festival that features the composer's seven symphonies, two versions of his Violin Concerto featuring soloist Elina Vähälä, and a collection of "Humoresques," with violinist Stella Chen.
Sam Bergman has been part of the orchestra's evolution into a great Sibelius orchestra, performing as part of the viola section, but also hosting its entertaining and insightful "Inside the Classics" presentations.
"I actually grew up thinking that I really didn't like Sibelius," Bergman said. "And that's because I grew up with the recordings my parents had. They were these very ponderous, overwrought interpretations where everything was sort of stretched out to its maximum as if to convey importance through slowness. …
"It wasn't until college, when I started hearing Sibelius with Finnish conductors, that I understood there was a flow to this, a tempo to it that made sense to me."
We asked Bergman to help guide us through the Sibelius symphonies. Here are excerpts from our discussion, with the dates the symphonies will be performed.
Symphony No. 1: "To me, the most memorable part of the First Symphony is the Scherzo. And how often can you say that? Even in symphonies with memorable scherzos — like Beethoven Nine — it's not the movement that everybody thinks of. But here's where the pacing comes in. If you play it the way that Osmo and a lot of other Finnish conductors do it, it is demonic. It feels like something is chasing you." (Jan. 7-8)
No. 2: "The opening to me, as a string player, sounds like everything that string players are meant to do. It's that warm, liquid sound that just wraps the audience in a big hug. … The most popular movement of the Second is almost certainly the finale, which is the big brassy fanfare, but it can't happen without the first movement putting you in that sound world. Instead of creating whole melodies, he's creating fragments that he Tetris-es together in a way that gets in your head." (Dec. 31-Jan. 1)
No. 3: "Sibelius seems to be saying, 'Yeah, that big lush thing that I gave you a minute ago? Enjoy that, but now here is a pile of inscrutable. Good luck with it.' It's deeply weird." (Jan. 13-14)
No. 4: "It starts with a cello solo that, depending upon how you shape it, is either incredibly ominous or incredibly dour. And those are kind of your two choices. You can either go for 'I am warning you' or you can go for 'This is just the despair of mankind.' … The whole symphony, it feels like you're waiting for the darkness to do that Beethoven thing, to transition to light. And it kind of doesn't. It just sort of stays dark." (Jan. 13-14)
No. 5: For the festival finale, Bergman will host an "Inside the Classics"-style concert built around this symphony. "I've always wanted to do a show with Osmo on Sibelius Five. It's my favorite symphony by any composer. I think it is perfect. I will not hear a word said against it. … But the fascinating thing about it is that he wrote it twice. And that's what we're going to get into in this show — that there is an earlier version that no one is allowed to perform anymore. Except Osmo, in my understanding." (Jan. 15-16)
No. 6: "There are endings to movements in Sibelius symphonies that don't end, they just stop. And that's the Sixth. By this time, Sibelius has completely abandoned normal symphonic forms. So the Sixth falls into the inscrutable bucket. It has some really memorable themes, but, again, it's fragments. I think of the finale of the Sixth as the one that's the most traditionally melodic, but even then, there's this darkness. It's just a little sad, especially for a finale." (Jan. 7-8)
No. 7: "It's the one that Sibelius nerds love to tell you is their favorite. He really did condense a symphony's worth of material into a single movement, but he also sort of did the late Beethoven thing of just categorically refusing to give you a hummable melody. It's basically an entire symphony built on tempo instead of melody. But it feels epic.
"It was 1924, a time when so many composers were doing interesting things with less. You had [Richard] Strauss and Mahler, for whom everything just got bigger and bigger and longer and longer. And then you have this whole generation of composers who went the other way, like Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. Sibelius fits in this interesting place between those generations. Sometimes he wants to reach back to that romantic tradition and sometimes he wants to be with the challengers, with the ones looking to reinvent music." (Dec. 31-Jan. 1)
Minnesota Orchestra's Sibelius Festival
When: 8:30 p.m. Fri., 2 p.m. Sat. Continues Jan. 7-16.
Where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.
Tickets: $30-$130, 612-371-5656 or minnesotaorchestra.org
Live telecast: 8:30 p.m. Fri., TPT-MN, and streaming at mnorch.vhx.tv
Program change: Finnish soprano Helena Juntunen was scheduled to perform songs of Sibelius this weekend but had to cancel because of COVID-related visa delays. Instead, violinist Stella Chen will play Sibelius' Humoresques Nos. 2-6.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. firstname.lastname@example.org.