The next four weeks will take me to performances in Boston, New York, Eindhoven, London, and Cleveland! After the final performance of the Beethoven Concerto in Boston on October 7, I took an early train the next day to New York and went straight to David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center to warm up for my first rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic. The free days I had in Boston post-performance, I worked on the Sibelius Concerto. I was excited to dive into this masterpiece with the New York Philharmonic and Jaap van Zweden.
Where the Beethoven is light and transparent, the Sibelius is dark and brooding, with an inner turmoil and agitation brewing below the ruffled textures in the orchestra. These low, rumbling orchestral colors often convey a feeling of foreboding.
Sibelius was born in 1865 and was part of the Swedish-speaking population of Finland, but he grew up during a time when Finns were struggling for independence (from Russia) and to forge their national identity. This is reflected in his compositions, which often draw inspiration from folk tales and nordic myths, or describe the landscapes of his country. You can almost touch the cold stones and the snow, see the epic landscapes, hear the raging battles!
The last movement is a wild ride full of virtuosic pyrotechnics.
Growing up, Sibelius had the ambition of becoming a violin virtuoso. But it was not to be, and later, when he later composed his violin concerto in 1904, it was perhaps to live out that unfulfilled dream of his youth—the dream to be a violin soloist. Perhaps it is some sort of subconscious revenge that he wrote violin pieces, which are so awkward and difficult to play!
The first movement is full of musically depicted jagged cliffs, misty woods, and epic struggles. For me, the opening violin line is the passionate, romantic human protagonist, floating and soaring above the foggy orchestral texture and struggling against the surrounding world. You immediately know that this is not going to be just a story, but an epic tale!
The second movement is intimate and warm—we have moved indoors and are protected from nature’s violent force. The theme expands slowly, with an inner pulse that keeps it moving forward despite the slow pace, and this emotional outpouring, unconstrained by conventional musical form, seems to go on forever. The last movement is a wild ride full of virtuosic pyrotechnics. There is a riding rhythm in the lower strings, and an opposite riding rhythm in the timpani, resulting in a rumbling texture—like a whole horde that isn’t elegantly riding synchronized, but rather galloping wildly! Shortly after the Sibelius Concerto was written, a critic mocked it. But I must say, there is indeed something slightly frightening and primal about the rhythms in this music.
One of the most striking things about Sibelius is that he never resorts to the formulaic patterns of his time, but always searches for the most unusual, unexpected ideas. Just a few bars before the end of the concerto, there is an unexpected pizzicato in the solo violin, which seems out of place, almost like a whipping sound. These weird, whipping pizzicati are quite often found in Sibelius’ violin music, and it is a feature that much later composers like Ligeti and Adès would pick up and use in their concertos, that at the most intense moment of the concerto, when you are racing up and down the fingerboard at top volume, you stark plucking as well—almost like throwing in everything and the kitchen sink!
It was enormously exciting to share the stage with Jaap van Zweden. His approach to the Sibelius is intense—he drives the momentum forward, and relishes the cataclysmic surges in the tuttis, because he is a force of nature himself! He is a violinist, so he knows every corner of this piece, and intuits everything I would do, before even I knew I was going to do it.
During the week, the weather changed from summer to fall, just in time to fit with this wintry concerto. When a performance is repeated three or four times in a row, it is normal for each one to feel differently. In general, later performances of a run tend to feel better, as everyone onstage delves deeper into the piece and connect on more and more nuances. Time of day makes a difference, too—evening performances can be more driven and energetic, while in the afternoons it’s easier to find the right pacing of a slow movement. Audiences’ reactions are also different depending on time of day, with an evening crowd generally responding with more energy. Part of the skill of performing is to commit fully to the piece and give everything you have, no matter how you felt going onstage, how you slept, or what you ate!
Sometimes it feels particularly easy to be drawn into the music, and the feeling when you reach the other end of the performance can be ecstatic. It is always a good feeling when you are very happy with the final performance, which I am happy to say was the case both in New York and Boston.
New York City has been my home for the past 15 years, and I have played with the New York Philharmonic a number of times over the years, and just played the Britten concerto with them and Jaap in Vail in July, so this past week felt in many ways like I was coming home to friends. The thoughtful staff at the philharmonic knows me so well by now that instead of placing a bottle of champagne in my dressing room (which they usually do on the last performance of a soloist or guest conductor), they remembered that I don’t drink and instead got me a bottle of sparkling apple cider!
Next up, I will travel to Europe to perform in Eindhoven and London. More soon!