Finlandia programme notes
Celebrating 56 years and counting! Nature’s splendour, youthful energy, carnival fun, and heartbreak all come together in our Season Opener. We open with Sibelius’ titular tone poem, then bookend it with theatre music written for a French tragedy that stands even better on its own. The depth of our local talent is also on display as U of L alum Joe Porter showcases the vibraphone in concerto he wrote himself.
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Series 1 – Finlandia
Jean Sibelius – Finlandia
At the turn of the twentieth century, Finland was a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire. Most Finns wanted independence from Russia, a view that couldn’t have been further from that of the Tsar. Seeking to exert greater control over his empire, Nicholas II implemented a policy of Russification, asserting his right to rule without consulting Finland’s government. Resistance was widespread, finding its greatest artistic embodiment in Sibelius’s tone poem Finlandia. The covert premiere of the piece at a time of political tension made Sibelius a national hero, guaranteeing him a place in his country’s history.
Finlandia is not merely a protest piece, but also a celebration of Finnish culture. It was expressly written for both purposes in 1899, when Sibelius composed the music for a tableau depicting Finnish history, presented as a subversive protest of the Tsarist regime. The work is especially known for the Finlandia Hymn, an ethereal melody at the centre of the piece that suggests any number of hymns heard in Finland’s Lutheran churches. That this melody is the basis of numerous other hymns is hardly surprising given its sanctity, and it later almost became Finland’s national anthem when Finland finally won independence.
Joe Porter – The Traveling Carnival: Concerto for Vibraphone, Strings and Percussion
When I was growing up, a traveling carnival would annually visit my hometown. I found all of the rides, games and tricks fascinating. For some, the event is full of thrills and smiles, and for others it is scary and disappointing. I was also intrigued by the carnies; I wondered if the life of the carnie was happy, sad or dark. In this concerto, I try to capture the main elements of the traveling carnival.
The vibraphone is a perfect instrument for capturing these. The piece begins with the soloist bowing the vibraphone, imitating the mystique of the carnival. In the second movement, The Sad Clown, the vibraphonist has an expressive part, trying to capture the emotions of the poor clown. In the first movement, Opening Night, and the third movement, Rides, Games and Trickery, the vibraphonist has virtuosic parts, dazzling the audience and capturing the thrills of the rides and tricks of the carnival.
In writing a concerto for vibraphone, I wanted to utilise the musical language of the jazz and Latin roots of the instrument. The drumset is added to help capture that jazz feel and add an exciting layer to the composition. The Traveling Carnival combines elements of jazz, Latin, rock and classical music.
The piece is through-composed with the exception of a solo vamp in Opening Night, where the vibraphonist improvises, much like a jazz combo soloing over the head of a tune. The drumset is also played freely, as in jazz.
Opening Night pays tribute to one of the most common jazz forms, the 12-bar blues, in a minor mode. The movement has many twists and turns, switching gears from swing to samba and mixed meter to Afro-Cuban 12/8, imitating the variety and excitement of the carnival’s opening night. The piece begins and ends in the dark key of F Minor, going behind the scenes of the carnival, and anticipating the next movement.
In The Sad Clown, I quote the famous clown song, “Entrée des Gladiateurs” by Ernest Wilhelm Julius Fucík. The piece wasn’t composed for carnivals or circuses, but it later became famous being played for the entrance of the clowns. I use it to imitate the clown going crazy, hearing the song in his head. Meanwhile, the drummer presents the thoughts of the clown, playing a funeral march-like snare drum part. The cello and contrabass have a quirky pizzicato part, resembling the outside acting face of the clown, and the vibraphone and upper strings portray the clown’s emotions.
The third movement begins with the vibraphonist imitating kids running around playfully. As their adventure unfolds, the piece develops as they try different rides and games. The kids are interrupted when they see a circus show. The vibraphonist’s cadenza resembles a flashy circus act, ending with rapid arpeggios up and down the instrument. The movement develops with many twists, leading up to the climactic ending where a customer tries a rigged game but can’t overcome the carnie’s trickery. The carnie plays tormenting music to anger the customer. The customer grows enraged and a fight ensues. The piece ends with both happy and disappointed customers and employees.
Georges Bizet – L’Arlésienne Suites 1 & 2
In 1872, the young French novelist Alphonse Daudet was commissioned to adapt his short story “L’Arlésienne” into a play. The story tells the misfortunes of the Provençal peasant Frederi and his family’s attempts to save him from madness after he is cuckolded by his fiancée; the titular girl from Arles. To further convey the story’s emotion, Daudet recruited Georges Bizet, then a marginal figure, to write incidental music. The play was a flop, closing after 21 performances, but Bizet was still deeply attached to his work. Not wanting his music to be forgotten, Bizet revamped what he’d written as two orchestral suites. The first of these appeared in 1872, while his friend Ernest Guiraud arranged and published the second in 1879 after Bizet had earned posthumous fame through the opera “Carmen”.
Bizet reimagined his music in the suites, embracing greater orchestral forces than those available in the pit orchestra. This added density and a greater variety of timbre to the ensemble, seen in his use of unorthodox instruments like the saxophone and harp. Many elements of the story are depicted musically, such as wedding bells in the Carillion movement of the first suite. Also illustrated is the Provençal setting of the play, conveyed through the inclusion of a Farandole dance movement in the second suite. When performed back to back the suites are symmetrical, as the first suite opens with the melody of the French carol “March of the Kings”, while the second closes with this same melody playing in counterpoint with the Farandole melody.