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Conductor's Choice

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The symphonic cycle of Jean Sibelius is one of the most revered and beloved since Beethoven’s. To inaugurate "Conductor’s Choice," a special new edition of Symphony Hall, WQXR has invited Maestro George Manahan, Music Director of New York City Opera and recently-appointed Music Director of the American Composers Orchestra, to curate and present the peerless Finn’s complete symphonies, on Friday evenings at 8pm, March 12 to April 9.

The Cycle

March 12: Symphony No. 1: Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

Sibelius’s First Symphony has the traits of a youthful work that was highly influenced by Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony. “It’s big in its use of percussion, soaring string lines, unison melodies," says Manahan. "And like the Pathetique Symphony, it ends softly.” Manahan chose a recording led by the Simon Rattle, because of the conductor’s ability to handle the start and stop nature of the music. “He still has a line that goes through it, which as a conductor is the challenge to make this piece work.”

March 19: Symphony No. 2: Yoel Levi, conductor

Sibelius’s Second is likely the most performed and most popular of his seven symphonies. According to Manahan, its popularity stems from the victorious finale with its shades of Tchaikovsky. “It’s one of the few times where there’s a big theme, where you can hear the melody and know where it’s going. That’s a comforting thing.” Manahan chose this 1990 version by Yoel Levi because “he paces the work so beautifully.”

March 26: Symphony No. 3: Sir Colin Davis, conductor
Symphony No. 4: Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

The Third Symphony is Manahan’s favorite, although it is not performed as often as the others. It has many unusual scoring effects involving the brass and woodwinds. Sir Colin Davis is also an old hand at Sibelius, having recorded the complete seven symphonies twice, first in the 1970's with the Boston Symphony for Philips and again with the London Symphony in the 1990s. “He brings a certain weight to the tempos and articulations that is right in the groove,” says Manahan.

The Fourth Symphony is an especially personal work, but also the least performed among his symphonies. "It is certainly the most severe and darkest," says Manahan. The work’s austerity reflects Sibelius’s anxiety over a life-threatening throat tumor in 1911 as well as his own struggles with alcohol abuse. “This piece is so well crafted and is as harmonically daring as anything Sibelius ever wrote.” Manahan picks a performance by Simon Rattle because it is not only beautifully polished but also sympathetic towards the work’s emotional scope.

April 2: Symphony No. 5: Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Symphony No. 6: Sir Colin Davis, conductor

The majestic Fifth Symphony, with its arresting conclusion, was written for Sibelius’s 50th birthday and was twice revised. An extremely popular work, it is notable for the long accelerando in its second movement, its folk-like third movement and the “swinging” horn vamp in the finale that was purportedly inspired by a flock of swans. Manahan finds that Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen paces this epic work particularly well.

After the heroics of the Fifth, the Sixth Symphony is probably the gentlest and most lighthearted of all of the symphonies. It reflects the season of winter--the subtitle of the First Movement--as well as the church music of the Renaissance. Composers like Palestrina, Thomas Tallis, and William Byrd are an influence on the finale. A performance by Colin Davis captures the lightheartedness of it and is never rushed. “It has a relaxed quality that is very special.”

April 9: Symphony No. 7: Sir Simon Rattle, conductor
Finlandia: Sir Colin Davis, conductor

The Seventh is considered by musicologists to be the most original and forward thinking of Sibelius’s works: a one-movement work, the themes of which emerge and coalesce in an organic way. To Manahan, it’s a culmination of the first six symphonies. “It felt like an old friend,” he says about his experience learning the piece. “There are the gestures I recognize from earlier works--the soaring melody of the strings accompanied by winds, there is dialogue between winds and strings, and yet it is the most concise.” He chooses Simon Rattle’s performance for its sense of control.

Sibelius’s earliest and best known work, Finlandia, is a depiction of national struggle, with a stirring, hymn-like tune that has ensured its permanent association with Finnish independence. Manahan says that while he grew up with a recording by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, today he finds Colin Davis most gets to the heart of what the composer intended.

George Manahan meets Jean Sibelius

Sibelius (1865-1957) is arguably the best-known Finn who ever lived. His image appears on Finland's currency, and in the U.S., he is the 12th most-performed composer, according to a recent survey by the League of American Orchestras. In recent seasons, complete Sibelius symphony cycles have been performed in London, Berlin and Los Angeles, among other cities. While many fans admire the epic scale and cool Nordic colors of Sibelius' symphonies, or the stirring nationalist sentiment in works like Finlandia or the Karelia Suite, Manahan is drawn to the unpredictability of the composer's style.

“Some of the symphonies are so elusive that at first, it's, 'where is he going with this?’ But as you become more familiar in rehearsing and playing it there is a bionic quality that comes together and a logic that one begins to see as one begins rehearsing more and more.”

“He seemed to change the rules on every piece,” Manahan adds. “In some ways, that’s in the spirit of Joseph Haydn. As the works progress they get more and more concise: shorter and with more economy of material. He was always refining it.”

More than most composers, Sibelius has always ridden waves of fashion. In his own day, hard-line modernists dismissed Sibelius as a timid soul who wrote old-fashioned symphonies and who couldn't stomach the era of atonality. In Austria and Germany, his music never caught on entirely. While Sibelius was immensely prolific, writing songs, choral works, tone poems, and a popular Violin Concerto, he was also curmudgeonly, self-tormenting, and an occasional heavy drinker. He lived his last 25 years in his house in the Finnish countryside, and gave up writing music entirely.

Dip into his symphonies, and you discover that Sibelius wrote in a romantic idiom that was utterly distinctive. Conductors are frequently drawn to the symphonies' technical sophistication.

“As a conductor they are technically challenging,” notes Manahan. “They don’t play themselves in the way that an orchestra can read Brahms or Tchaikovsky symphonies down pretty quickly. “There are very difficult rhythmic challenges that make it difficult to put them together. There is an integrity to his music that is wonderful. They are so fulfilling to do. But it does require a virtuoso orchestra."

Manahan's favorite recordings are characterized by their cohesiveness, pacing, and sense of drama. “All of his symphonies are epic in the journey that they take, from the first movement to the end, as well as the journey Sibelius took from his First Symphony until his last," he says. "Probably second only to Beethoven is the spiritual development that Sibelius did from his First Symphony in 1899 until his Seventh Symphony 25 years later.”

For more information about George Manahan, please click here.