I’ve just spent a wonderful musical week at the Sibelius Festival in Lahti, Finland. Lahti is a small city about 100km north of Helsinki and located on the shore of a very big lake. Right by the lake is the Sibelius Hall, a beautiful structure which melds an old industrial brick building with a brand-new glass box in which is housed a modern wooden concert hall with superb acoustics. The two are joined by the Forest Hall foyer which has enormous glass frontage through which you can see the lake and sky, and staircases that look like trees branching upward.
The Sibelius Festival is held every year and usually lasts about three and a half days (three evening concerts, several chamber concerts in the day and some talks). It is entirely dedicated to the music of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) who is Finland’s national composer. This year the Festival ran for seven days to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth. I’ve been twice before, but this year’s was unmissable.
During the week we heard all seven symphonies, the 75 minute choral epic Kullervo, the violin concerto, the Lemminkainen suite, The Wood Nymph, Luonnatar and the tone poems Tapiola, The Bard, The Oceanides, Pohjola’s Daughter, and En Saga, and several shorter pieces. If you don’t know Sibelius’ music the tone poems are a good place to start as they are generally between 8-20 minutes long and in a single movement. They’re all highly atmospheric.
More stories from the Festival in the next few days.
First, welcome to those of you who recently signed up to this blog; I hope you’ll find these notes on music interesting. Apologies to all for the absence from writing. This has been due to several weeks getting to grips with a new computer and new software (for music-making) plus a much-delayed summer holiday in Finland.
The holiday included attending all the concerts at the Sibelius Festival in Lahti, about 100km north of Helsinki. This is an annual festival dedicated to the music of Finland’s most famous composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) who for awhile at the beginning of the C20th played an important symbolic role in the struggle for Finnish national identity. He composed quite a bit of music in most genres, but it is his tone-poems and seven symphonies on which his reputation probably most rests. The symphonies in particular are held in high regard – so much so that at his funeral seven white candles were used during the ceremony, each standing for one of the symphonies. That gives an idea of the reverence in which they were/are held. They are all quite different from each other, as became apparent at the festival this year, because over the course of three nights we heard them all in chronological sequence. The first lasts about 40 minutes, the last only about 22 and is essentially in one movement instead of the usual four.
If you haven’t sampled Sibelius before try some of the tone-poems such as ‘Night-ride and Sunrise’ or ‘The Bard’ or the spooky ‘Tapiola’, or a short piece such as ‘Spring Song’, or the ever-popular ‘Karelia Suite’. Among the symphonies no.2 and no.5 are probably the most accessible to begin with, the former being a late-C19th romantic work, the latter being more compact, optimistic and with the beautiful ‘swan hymn’ theme in the last movement (also featuring one of the greatest key-changes in all orchestral music as Sibelius swings from G flat to C major just as the swan hymn is launched).
The Sibelius Festival is held in the first week or so of September Thurs-Sun. It is good to fit in a visit to his home which is now a museum about 60 km from Lahti. The capital Helsinki is also good to visit and walk round. There is an excellent DVD by Christopher Nupen about Sibelius’ life and music if you can’t get to Finland and also a 2004 Finnish biopic called Sibelius which I haven’t seen yet.