The Unintuitive Symphony: LUCO plays Sibelius’ 1st

Picture a darkened Parks & Rec building in West Seattle. In the single lit room, some 70 members of the Lake Union Civic Orchestra are arranged in arcs, with Maestro Christophe Chagnard at the center. And then there’s the stuff that doesn’t usually adorn an orchestra space: gym equipment, a wall of folded bleachers, a computer lab, ominous air ventilation tubes…

It is in this unlikely setting that a wonderful concert is taking shape – a balancing act in three parts: first, a rousing debut fanfare by Cornish student Lydia Park, followed by Mendelssohn’s gracefully harmonious Violin Concerto, and finally, Sibelius’ deeply moving Symphony No. 1.

Here’s a modest guide to the concert, and notes on what to keep an ear out for.

Park – A Serenade Fanfare

Cellist Michael Schick rehearses A Serenade Fanfare.
Cellist Michael Schick rehearses A Serenade Fanfare.

A Serenade Fanfare is Lydia Park’s first composition for orchestra. It is a short work whose theme gets into your head and stays there. Lydia was inspired by the ability of a fanfare to convey a rich, powerful feeling that the audience connects with immediately, and she kept this connection in mind as she wrote the piece.

I asked Lydia what it was like to compose for so many instruments at once.

“When I write on the piano, the notes usually scream for themselves which instrument they want to be played on,” she says. “For example, when I’m playing a series of chords with both my hands that create a certain smooth, self-defining harmony, I give these roles to the strings, who will be able to bring out the ultimate sensation of the harmony.”

How does she decide when to let a single instrument shine through?

“The idea of ‘giving’ solos to instruments is amusing,” she says. “The melody itself already knows which instrument it would be best suited for.”

Lydia is a winner of LUCO’s 20th anniversary fanfare competition, which aims to help aspiring young composers meet the challenge of getting original music performed.

LISTEN FOR…
> The theme, which is played first by solo trumpet, then magnified in a majestic crescendo as the entire orchestra joins in.

Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto

Soloist Denise Dillenbeck
Violin soloist Denise Dillenbeck.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto – considered one of the finest in the violin repertoire – is all about grace and virtuosity, says Chagnard. “Mendelssohn is an absolute genius, and the ease in which he crafts the most sublime harmonies and melodies is astonishing.”

(Have you ever heard an orchestra hum? LUCO rehearsed Mendelssohn’s violin concerto several times without soloist Denise Dillenbeck before she joined them; in her absence, Maestro and the orchestra hummed her part. It sounded excellent.)

LISTEN FOR…
> In the first movement, look out for the ricochet bowing (bouncing the bow across the strings) at the end of the solo. This is very challenging.
> Also note the concerto’s harmonious nature, which will provide a perfect setup for the troubled Sibelius that follows.

Sibelius – Symphony No. 1

(Photo: Shaya Lyon/The Live Music Project)

“It has to have more angst! It’s a bit banal. Violas – give me something!” Chagnard is enthusiastic about conducting Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1, a powerful, angsty, unintuitive piece that unsettles even the musicians playing it.

“It is music that is not self-evident. You really have to immerse yourself in this language to understand it,” he says.

During rehearsal, the musicians express concern that the Sibelius sounds wrong, that perhaps their scores have an incorrect note here or there. Chagnard explains that the dissonance is not a typo but rather an expression of Sibelius’ angst.

The Russian oppression of Finnish independence was a source of tremendous anger for Sibelius, who was putting the finishing touches on this symphony in 1899 as the Emperor of Russia issued the “February Manifesto,” which restricted the autonomy of the Grand Duchy of Finland.

“His music is fiercely individualistic, and a reflection of his strong Finnish identity (against the oppression of Russia’s iron-fist rule at the time),” says Chagnard. “There is great poetry and nature, as well as rebellion and anger, in his music.”

A century later, LUCO reminds us of Sibelius’ strikingly original genius from the very beginning of his creative output.

“It is a musical language like no other,” says Chagnard. “The Sibelius is very esoteric and most unusual in its structure… He presents themes as fragments and later builds them into a whole, which is the reverse method from most other composers.”

During rehearsal, as more questions arise about timing, he dispels them all. “I tell you,” he says, “– angst!” Someone in the orchestra calls out, “I feel it!” and they press on, angst and longing welling up from the strings.

Chagnard is delighted. “What a great passage, eh? It’s a we’re-going-to-kick-the-Russians-out kind of passage. Took a while, though. Took a while.”

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One of the most captivating moments of the symphony is its opening. A solemn, pensive melody rises up from the clarinet, accompanied by a low rumble from the tympani, while the orchestra waits silently.

This solo seems, to me, like a massive responsibility. I asked the clarinetist, Steven Noffsinger, what it feels like to play those opening notes.

“The best description I’ve found, and which is running through my head while I’m playing, is this: a solitary clarinet solo breathes a sense of desolation, which is from time to time emphasized by the distant rumbling of the timpani​. The wintry Finnish landscape is unmistakable, and a sense of expectation fills the air.” (See www.sibelius.fi and inkpot.com for the sources of this quote and more on Sibelius Symphony No. 1.)

LISTEN FOR…
> A sense of desolation and expectation in the clarinet’s opening notes
> Unexpected notes and timing
> Themes that build in small pieces and later come together as a whole

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The Lake Union Civic Orchestra (LUCO) will perform Park, Mendelssohn and Sibelius at Town Hall on Friday, February 27, 2015, at 7:30pm. For details and tickets, click here.

Would you like to be featured on the Live Music Project? Drop us a note at info@livemusicproject.org. All photos © 2015 by Shaya Lyon for the Live Music Project.