In 1935, listeners to the New York Philharmonic’s Sunday broadcasts voted Jean Sibelius their favorite living composer of symphonies. Sibelius’ music has retained its stature in the concert hall, despite naysayers such as the critic Virgil Thomson, who thought his music provincial.
The one corner of this composer’s repertoire that remains hidden is his theater music. Except for a number that quickly became world famous, “Valse triste,” composed in 1903 for the play “Kuolema (Death),” the 11 scores that Sibelius wrote as incidental music for plays are largely unknown.
The chief reason for this neglect is probably because people can’t figure out what to do with the music. Do you stage the entire play and add the music? Or do you present just the music as a concert piece? Sibelius himself fashioned two suites from what is commonly thought to be his finest theater score, written for a 1926 Danish production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” But some of the numbers were shortened and put in an order different from the original.
Minnesota Orchestra music director Osmo Vänskä may have hit on a solution that does justice to both the play and the music. It is a concert suite using 25 of the 34 numbers that Sibelius composed for the play. A mezzo-soprano sings the five songs written for the character Ariel, and a narrator reads passages from the play.
The presentation had its premiere Thursday at Orchestra Hall. It is intriguing and evocative, with Guthrie Director Joe Dowling as narrator and mezzo Heather Johnson as Ariel.
This is Sibelius in a lighter vein — atmospheric, colorful, descriptive — with music as enchanted as the play it illustrates. It is also music of high contrast. A fearful storm — surging seas and howling gusts of wind — opens the suite. Later comes the haunting “Oak-Tree” with its anguished flute solo and an eloquent lullaby — an inspired piece scored for two clarinets, harp and muted strings.
Dowling, who selected the texts from the play, moved deftly between narration and character, giving ample dramatic weight and variety to the various characters’ voices and a special wistful tone to the famous final speech (“We are such stuff as dreams are made on …”).
For her part, Johnson brought an appealing charm to the Ariel songs. (Johnson replaced the ailing Finnish mezzo Lilli Paasikivi, who sang these numbers in the recording of the complete score that Vänskä made some years ago with the Lahti Symphony.)
Johnson sang Berlioz’s song cycle “Les nuits d’ete” (“Summer Nights”) in the first half of the program. A trifle tentative at the start, she quickly took control of the vocal line, negotiating the high notes with complete facility and gleaming tone, delivering just the right dreaminess to “Le spectre de la rose” and sufficient delicacy in “Villanelle.”
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis writer.