Grant Park Music Festival Conductor Carlos Kalmar coyly hinted that the audience should expect the unexpected during his introduction to Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 in E-Flat Major, Op. 82. Kalmar, at the first of two performances of the piece this past weekend, referred to its ending, relating what he was once told by a conductor friend from Finland, the homeland of Sibelius: Finnish conversations, even when warm and friendly, typically end abruptly.
The abrupt ending to the Sibelius symphony appeared to have arrived as the orchestra took a pause so pregnant that some in the audience started their applause. But then the real finale ensued: a series of five sledgehammer chords, with a pause between each one. On the fifth stroke, the piece, and the concert, ended.
Sibelius was fond of bold statements, not surprising for one of the few composers revered as a national hero during his lifetime. His most famous work is Finlandia, a statement of national identity completed in 1900, when Finland was toward the end of a century as a virtual colony of Czarist Russia.
Sibelius’ 5th Symphony debuted in 1915; by the time he completed the final version in 1919, Finland had declared its independence from Russia in 1917 and endured a civil war in which forces seeking to emulate Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution were defeated.
Along with experiencing numerous historical eras during his long life (1865-1957), Sibelius composed during the transition between the late Romantic era of classical music and the modernist era. His Symphony No. 4, completed in 1911, plunged deeply into the dissonant rhythms of modernism that reflected Sibelius’ own serious health and financial troubles at the time.
His 5th Symphony bridges those eras. The pastoral beginning to the 1st movement gives way to an increasingly urgent counterpoint between the strings and winds before calming again. The 2nd movement curiously involves lengthy passages of pizzicato, aka string-plucking. The 3rd movement rises to the power and lyricism of what Sibelius described as the Swan Hymn—inspired by the slght of 16 swans flying overhead—before the emphatic closing of the power chords.
The Sibelius piece concluded a program that began with Three Dance Episodes from On The Town, composed in 1944 by Leonard Bernstein, then a 25-year-old wunderkind of American classical music. Influenced by George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, Bernstein took the first step in bridging classical and modern music that would culminate in West Side Story 13 years later.
The music for On The Town was first composed for Bernstein’s jazz ballet Fancy Free, about three sailors on shore leave in New York City during World War II. It quickly morphed into On The Town, a full-scale Broadway musical that later because a 1949 cinematic vehicle for Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, who were on their way to superstardom. After a brisk 1st movement and more melancholy 2nd movement, the 3rd movement resonated with familiarity with variations on the musical’s signature song: New York, New York, It’s a Helluva Town.
The middle piece of the concert was composer Margaret Brouwer’s thoroughly modernist Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, debuted in 2010. The performance was a showcase for viola soloist Masumi Per Rostad, who proved his talent in mastering a series of difficult rhythms and technique that included grinding passages and an upscale and down passage that called to mind—and this is meant as a compliment—a kazoo. (The piece also gave unusual prominence to the orchestra’s bells and vibraphone.)
Rostad’s virtuosity aside, the dissonance embodied in much of the piece made it one of those much more enjoyable and memorable for those who truly appreciate modernist music.
The Grant Park Music Festival resumes Wednesday (July 21) at 6:30pm at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Anton Bruckner’s Mass No. 2 in E Minor, composed in 1866 and revised in 1882, is the featured piece, preceded by Lili Boulanger’s Psalm 24 (1916) and Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year, a choral piece completed in 2000. Most seats and the Great Lawn are free; reserved seats at the front can be purchased for $25 by clicking here.