For anyone working in the sphere of Nordic music, Sibelius is an unavoidable influence. Always one of my favourite composers, my Nordic music journey really began in 2015 with an RSNO performance of the mighty “Kullervo” Symphony with Ed Gardner at the Edinburgh Festival in 2015. I’d just returned from my first visit to Greenland and this piece, which I’d never encountered before, struck a real chord with me. Its power, energy and sense of melancholic longing was an outlet for my emotions and made me realise that I had to travel to the Far North again, and soon! One year later and I was travelling to Iceland at the start of a project that has become very dear to my heart: Nordic Viola.
A wonderful coincidence, then, that I will present the RSNO’s “Sibelius in Focus” event on 23rd March in Glasgow, the day before I return to Iceland for a series of concerts in Reykjavik and the East Fjords. The workshop will be repeated in Edinburgh on 11th May.
The afternoon’s workshop will focus first on the Violin Concerto, with special guests RSNO leaders Maya Iwabuchi in Glasgow and Sharon Roffman in Edinburgh, who will offer us an insight into how Sibelius writes for the violin. (Sibelius actually aspired to become a virtuoso violinist himself!)
We will look at how Sibelius became a defining figure for emerging Finnish Nationalism with “Finlandia” and his dynamic orchestral works based on the “Kalevala”. Music filled with a longing for freedom, a pride in Finnish nature and literature with a gift for displaying the duality of light and dark in Finnish art and culture.
After the break, we’ll look at Sibelius the symphonist, as we follow his journey towards the incredible Seventh Symphony, which the RSNO will perform the same night in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall with Thomas Søndergård. We’ll explore how Sibelius explored the possibilities of expressing symphonic material in the most concise way imaginable by minimising gesture, optimising musical motifs and focusing on minute details in his music. Sibelius never completed his Eighth Symphony and what he had written was consigned to flames in his home, “Ainola”. Was there any more left for him to say after condensing symphonic form in the way he did in the Seventh Symphony?
And yet this sense of melancholy and longing, the starkness of the northern landscape in music and the obsession with tiny detail lives on in modern Nordic music with composers such as rising star from Iceland, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Danes Per Nørgård and Bent Sørensen as well as Faroese composer Sunleif Rasmussen. Closer to home, Anna Appleby, alumnus of the RSNO Composer’s Hub, wrote “Hrakningar” for my own Nordic Viola ensemble, a piece that reflects on the migration of geese between Iceland and Scotland and our attitudes to human migration – not so far removed from Sibelius’ famous swans and cranes!