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Borealis Beat

A glimpse into the mind of our Artistic Director as she shares her knowledge and expertise on our music selections, the composers, artists, concerts, and more

Romantic Gestures: Celebrating Scandinavia!

A very warm welcome to our 44th Season, and to “Romantic Gestures”, a concert celebrating Scandinavia, with special guest artists. Ever-popular, charismatic violinist Jeremy Bell returns to Consortium for the 15th time! He is joined by pianist Shoshana Telner, with whom he has had a rewarding working relationship for the past seven years. They will entrance you with their virtuosity and musicality.

We are overjoyed that at long last we can embark once again on a full line-up of seven live, exciting, in-person concerts! As Artistic Director of Consortium Aurora Borealis, I wish to assure you that I have not been standing idly by these past two and a half years! Besides programming and curating all of our virtual presentations from late summer 2020 onwards, as well as our three experimental hybrid live and virtual concerts of Spring 2022, there have been countless organizational details which have occupied me.

This time was also spent planning our upcoming 2022-2023 live concert season, even looking beyond to the future. Four of these concerts, particularly the three with out-of-town guest artists, including the present one, were actually deferred from past seasons! Our Scandinavian-themed concert had been semi-planned in 2018 for September 2021.

So many of our concerts have focussed on Italy, and sometimes on Germany. I decided it was time to move farther north, to the Scandinavian countries. Danish composers Buxtehude, Kuhlau and Nielsen have appeared on Consortium programmes on previous occasions, so I turned instead to Norwegian Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), Swedish Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927), and Finnish Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). The concert then switches gears to conclude with an exquisite Italian violin sonata by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936). All four works are written in a highly Romantic vein.

The concert starts gently, with the first movement of Stenhammar’s Violin Sonata in A minor, Op. 19, an intimate work which presents some lovely, lyrical melodic material, marked dolce, espressivo, tranquillo. It was written in Stockholm for Sweden’s top violinist and friend of the composer. The violin is supported sometimes by a rocking piano accompaniment, at times with chords, and sometimes by arpeggiated passages. A repeated, descending three-note motive is tossed between violin and piano for a while, and a very brief agitated passage is heard at the end.

Stenhammar died of a stroke at age 56, a contrast to our next composer, Jean Sibelius, who lived until 91 despite his habits of excessive smoking and drinking, especially in Helsinki! The two men had kept in contact over the years; they were only six years apart in age. Stenhammar admired Sibelius greatly and was influenced by him.

Sibelius is doubtless Finland’s greatest composer. His mother tongue had been Swedish (Finland was part of Sweden until 1908), but he was educated at Finnish-language schools. He had aspired to be a virtuoso violinist, being quite accomplished on that instrument. Though he is known chiefly for his larger symphonic works, he did compose over 150 piano works, one of which, little-known here but worth discovering, is on tonight’s concert.

Fifteen years after Finlandia, Sibelius went to the USA in 1914 to receive an Honorary Doctorate from Yale. His Symphony No. 5 dates from this time. He also wrote three opuses of piano pieces that year, just as WWI was about to break out, and I have deliberately programmed the middle one, Op. 75, “The Trees”, because of its aptness for a concert in Thunder Bay, especially since our concert sponsor, Diana Pallen, is Finnish! It also serves as a foil to the more complex violin sonatas which follow. I also wanted to offer Shoshana Telner the opportunity to perform as piano soloist, while giving Jeremy Bell a short break. As a nod to Thunder Bay’s sizeable Finnish population, we are happy to include that suite for solo piano by Sibelius, in which his love of nature is expressed. “The Trees” enjoyed great popularity in Finland, and Sibelius had said that one day his piano pieces might become as popular as those of Schumann.

Sibelius combines five intimate and captivating miniatures into one twelve-minute salon piece, with each movement given the Finnish name of a tree which commonly grew in his country. Interestingly, these are the same trees which populate the lands and forests in the region around Thunder Bay, so all these will be very familiar to us! The Finnish landscape is very similar to ours, which is why the immigrants from the old country felt so much at home! Thunder Bay region has the largest population of Finns outside of Helsinki, possibly up towards 15,000. Snow, spruce, forests, fresh air, silence of nature, is what attracted many of them to settle here. Saunas and Finnish pancakes now abound!

Sacred trees such as the spruce, pine, and birch regularly appear in Finnish folklore and mythology. Sibelius, who had said that the trees spoke to him, had a strong interest in nature from childhood, relishing its various moods. Sibelius sought refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city, escaping to the country and the sounds and delights of nature. He lived out his final years in the countryside.

The movements of Opus 75 “The Trees” are:

  1. När rönnen blommar (When the Rowan Blossoms) – Rowan is Mountain Ash.
  2. Den ensamma furan (The Solitary Pine)
  3. Aspen (The Aspen)
  4. Björekn (The Birch)
  5. Granen (The Spruce)

“The Trees” presents a variety of sonorities and moods, but a tender melancholy seems to prevail through much of the work. The sections are mostly lyrical and impressionistic and are said to reflect the Finnish soul. Rhythms and dynamics are flexible.

No. 1 is somewhat in the character of short Tchaikovsky solo piano pieces. Marked allegretto and dolce, it is delicate, gentle, whimsical, with a touch of melancholy, leading to a Romantic theme somewhat reminiscent of Chopin.

No. 2, “The Lonely Pine”, is slow, rugged, stately, with some very full chords and a touch of melancholy.

No. 3 depicts aspen leaves trembling in the breeze, employs strummed chords and a rocking rhythm, displays an impressionistic feel for nature, and dies out quietly at the end.

The birch is the favourite tree of the Finns. Markings in No. 4 indicate sonorous and mysterious interpretation.

Finally, No. 5, “The Spruce”, is the most famous and the most frequently performed, often as an encore. It is a slow, gentle waltz, again tinged with feelings of melancholy and nostalgia. The harmonies are almost modern. A risoluto section with a flurry of arpeggiated notes leads towards the end. The final slow section is very romantic and fades out at the end. All in all, this is a very beautiful, magical piece.

I have invited our performers to share their perspectives on this concert. Jeremy Bell leads off with a very detailed, personal, and engaging look at the music we will be hearing, and at his experience putting it together. He writes in his inimitable style as follows:

I am thrilled to be sharing Grieg’s Sonata No. 2, Op. 13 with the Borealis audience on September 10th. Shoshana Telner and I recorded the three Grieg sonatas in 2015 and have performed them in many recitals together ever since. The second sonata was composed just after Grieg’s honeymoon in 1867 and is cast in a very lively and warm G major key. The themes are folk-spirited and reflect the style of the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle. This instrument has a lot of double-stopping ability since the bridge is flatter and it also has additional resonating strings under the finger board! My luthier friend Trevor Ewert in Waterloo built a Hardanger fiddle himself and has let me try it several times. It is super fun to play! Grieg’s G major Sonata is my favourite of the three. The pulse percolates with dance steps that leap across the room in a grand way.

Swedish composer-conductor Wilhelm Stenhammar wrote his delightful violin sonata in 1900 when he was 29 years old. At this point in his career, Stenhammer was considered Sweden’s top pianist and performed primarily chamber music, his true love. The piano part for this sonata is very intricate and shows rich but subtle harmonic changes, supporting a rather simple theme in the violin. Yet the theme twists and frolics along in an elusive and asymmetrical way which is wonderfully compelling for the listener. It has a bit of a Schumann feel to it, although it is more charming and resists the perils of the stronger emotions touched upon.

Ottorino Respighi was an accomplished violinist and pianist and composed his B minor sonata in 1917 at a time when he was experiencing wide popularity and fame in Europe.  The work begins with an aching violin melody over a brooding piano accompaniment which builds strength and purpose. This is contrasted with exquisite moments Respighi marks con grande espressione e dolcezza. The range emotions are more palpable in the second movement – here a tranquil melody in the violin is adorned by a languid quintuplet ostinato, the build is extreme and leads to a desperate all-or-nothing crisis!

The last movement employs the Baroque Passacaglia form and takes a very powerful theme through a wild set of variations leading to a mind-blowing coda that may very well bring the rafters down! There is no doubt Respighi has created here the ultimate Romantic sonata for violin and piano. At the premiere in Bologna, Respighi played the piano part and was joined by his violin teacher Federico Sarti. The audience was exalted by the performance, to which Respighi exclaimed “Praise be!”

Shoshana and I have been playing together since 2014, when we started on the Grieg G major sonata. We quickly realized our musical compatibility. Shoshana has a very instinctive and natural musicality, with a remarkable sense of rubato and ensemble playing that makes working with her very inspiring. We then decided to record all three Grieg sonatas. Shoshana’s accuracy at the recording sessions put me to shame. She was hitting 99 percent take after take! We then played a number of recitals together in Waterloo, Toronto, and Barrie and expanded our repertoire to Strauss, Mozart, Bartok, Schumann, and Respighi.

Working with Shoshana is so much fun – we don’t need to discuss too much since she brings such a high level of interpretation right out of the gates. Always sounds so natural and convincing. Most of our discussion revolves around refining tempos and dealing with the more delicate ensemble moments and transitions. The Respighi has some very complicated rhythmic structures like 7 notes against 5 and other extreme syncopated sections – in a post Puccini operatic sense that we essentially just need to hold on to our hats and find each other as we go! A bit like white water rafting – but with a piano and violin – takes a fair bit of trust!

Shoshana picks up at this point:

The Sibelius 5 pieces for piano, Opus 75, is an homage to five different species of trees that depict the Finnish landscape. These miniatures evoke the life and uniqueness of each tree in a way that connects us to nature through music. Sibelius loved nature and was often seen with binoculars outside trying to take in everything he saw. It has been a pleasure discovering these brief and beautiful piano pieces by a composer who is most known for his violin concerto and numerous symphonies. Performing this piece in a city surrounded by forests and many fellow Canadians of Finnish ancestry will make it extra special. 

The first movement reminds me of Schumann early piano works near the outset. There is a struggle between major and minor. The scalic flourishes are liberating, like a breath of fresh air. “The Lonely Pine” displays extreme dynamics. It is simple on the outside, but quite deep in the inside! We just see the tree, but the roots are endless…

“The Aspen” has a swing and a sway that makes us feel a slight breeze. The middle chromatic section is jazzy. “The Birch” is the most impressionistic, with shades of Debussy in the harmonies and textures. It’s an exciting movement; this tree is definitely not lonely!

“The Spruce” evolves magically, with a tentative waltz, hinting at ideas rather than confidently stating them. It’s rather improvisatory, with many fermatas, really enjoying the unique moment. The quicker sections explore more dissonant chords. The ending is more like a question.

Trees are so intricate, elaborate, and can be looked upon in many different ways! They are useful, can communicate, and are extremely beautiful. It’s amazing how Sibelius is bringing trees to life with these accurate and descriptive musical miniatures!

I am really excited to perform with Jeremy Bell in Thunder Bay on September 10th. Our Scandinavian themed program is one that tells a story of the picturesque Nordic countries. The violin sonatas of Grieg and Stenhammar incorporate folk elements throughout. Though this is classical music, the idea of folk songs creates a sense of warmth, comfort, and embracing new cultures. The Respighi Sonata is a demanding and exciting Romantic work that has many ups and downs. The complex tonalities and rhythms make this unique final piece on our program extremely dramatic!

It is always an honor to perform with Jeremy. Our similarities of approaching and performing music was evident from our first rehearsal and concert several years ago in Waterloo. Jeremy is such a great musician to work with – his brilliant ideas make it easy to collaborate together. His violin playing is enthralling and enthusiastic! He approaches each performance with a commitment to accuracy and intensity which I always find energizing. In performance, we always strive to listen intently and respond to any new ideas in the moment. There is a sense of flexibility and trust needed when playing duo recitals, and I really could not ask for a more reliable and inspiring duo partner!  Jeremy has performed many times in Thunder Bay and I am grateful he is introducing me to this beautiful city! We are really looking forward to sharing our music with the audience in Thunder Bay!


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