PELTOKOSKI, THAYER AND MOZART

Artists and Repertoire

Tarmo Peltokoski, conductor
Jeff Thayer, violin

Kaija Saariaho: Ciel d’hiver (Winter Sky)
W.A. Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, K. 216, “Strassburg”
Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43

About

The 22-year old Filipino-Finnish conducting sensation Tarmo Peltokoski leads the Orchestra in Sibelius’ awe-inspiring anthem and ode to Finland, the gorgeous Symphony No. 2. Concertmaster Jeff Thayer is the soloist for Mozart’s third violin concerto, written when the composer was just 19. This “Strassburg” Concerto brims with the best qualities of his youthful music, filled with playfulness and touching songlike and even comical whimsy.

Insights from our Creative Consultant

Kaija Saariaho: Ciel d’hiver (Winter Sky)

For a country with a relatively small population, Finland has made an outstanding contribution to international musical life in the modern era. Beginning with Sibelius a little over a hundred years ago, this north-eastern European nation, whose remote borders reach up to the Arctic Circle, has produced a steady stream of gifted and unusual composers, soloists and conductors, of whom this program’s conductor, born in 2000 and already in high demand the world over, is the latest phenomenal success.

One reason for this phenomenal musical energy has been Finland’s highly democratic and progressive educational system, which has done great work over many years supporting those who dare to think in different ways. For example, in the late 1970s an adventurous and rebellious group of music students in Helsinki, the capital, founded a group to encourage new ways of musical thinking. They called it "Open Your Ears!", and among the young people who took part were Esa-Pekka Salonen (whose Nyx the San Diego Symphony Orchestra recently performed in the 2021-22 season, and who is now Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony) and his close friend and colleague Kaija Saariaho.

Saariaho is a composer with an especially interesting back story. She grew up in a home devoted to the visual arts, and in her early years divided her time between graphic design and music. And one of the first things that will strike someone listening to her music is its thoroughly visual feel. She seems to paint music, as an artist might paint a landscape or a portrait.

"Winter Sky" was originally the central slow movement of a large-scale 3-movement work called Orion, written for the Cleveland Orchestra in 2002, and based on the idea of the constellation Orion, which itself is named after the ancient Greek mythological huntsman who was thrown into the sky by the Ancient Gods.

The first movement of Saariaho’s Orion is a terrifying prelude entitled "Memento mori" (Remember that you must die), and the last movement, "Hunter," is a powerful evocation of Orion as a constellation, prowling across the vast spaces of the sky.

In the middle came a very different movement, "Winter Sky," a beautifully still and icy nocturne. A few years later, the composer made an arrangement of this piece so that it could stand alone and be played by a slightly smaller orchestra, giving it a French version of the title, Ciel d’hiver. The piece begins with a wonderful melody high up on the piccolo flute, floating above eerie and almost inaudible whisperings in the harp and orchestral strings. Gradually this turns into a slow-motion wave, as though we were watching the constellation move across a cloudless and freezing night sky, before disappearing into extremely high bells sounds from the percussion.


W.A. Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, K. 216, “Strassburg”

It is sometimes forgotten that Mozart, as well as being probably the greatest piano-player of his age, was a formidable and virtuosic violinist and viola player. We can hear his incredible mastery of these instruments all over his output, in his operas, orchestral music and in his wonderful chamber music, especially his string quartets and string quintets.

As far as concertos go, though, Mozart is most famous for his piano concertos, which he continued to write all through his short life. Only in his early years, when he was still living with his family in Salzburg and in the employment of the Prince-Archbishop there (Mozart loathed him!), did he compose string concertos, including his five violin concertos and the Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola, the two instruments he played so well.

The Violin Concerto No. 3 dates from 1773, when he was still just 19, and many years before he left Salzburg to spend the rest of his life in Vienna. It’s filled with the best qualities of his youthful music: boyish, elegant, brimming with light and playfulness in the first movement, touching and songlike in the central slow movement, and surprising and comical in the last movement, where the music is suddenly interrupted by two completely different dances in a different rhythm, which seem to have dropped in from another piece entirely.

In a letter to his father, Mozart referred to this third violin concerto as his "Strassburg Concerto": "Tonight, at the grand Supper, I played the Strassburger Concert. It went like hell!" (He meant, of course, and presumably intending to irritate his father, that he had played it very well…)

No one really knows why he called it this, but one clue might lie in the comical interruptions in the last movement. One of those two tunes was used by Mozart’s colleague, the composer Dittersdorf, in his 7-movement light-hearted divertimento called Grand Symphony: The Carnival or The Ballroom, where it is labelled "Ballo Strasburghese" (Strassburg Dance). This would suggest the tune was a well-known popular dance at the period, and maybe even a folk-melody. If that was so, then the original listeners would have had smiles on their faces when they heard Mozart playing it.


Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43

For centuries, Finland was not a country. For at least three hundred years, people who lived in what we now call Finland, and who spoke the Finnish language and sang Finnish songs, were ruled by Sweden. Then, in the early 19th century, the Russians invaded and Finland was given the status of an autonomous Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire. They were now part of Russia, albeit with some possibilities to express their own identity. This situation only came to an end with the Russian Revolution in 1917, when Finland declared independence, though not without having to fight several terrible wars against their neighbor.

So, Finland’s greatest composer, Sibelius, grew up under the rule of Russian Emperors, in whose Empire he was a near contemporary of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.

Sibelius certainly knew the music of his Russian contemporaries. You can hear the influence of Tchaikovsky on his First and Second Symphonies. And he was friends with several Russian colleagues. But there the Russian connection ends. For in the little over 100 years that Finland was ruled by the Russians, the Finnish nation coming into being, discovering its identity, its difference from other nations, the beauty of its ancient language (not connected to most of the other European languages around it) and the distinctive power of its folk traditions. It was in this world of upheavals and a new self-awareness that Sibelius grew up and developed his unique musical voice. We know that from his earliest youth he wanted to be a Finnish composer writing Finnish music. The question was: how to do this?

One way was to study abroad, in Berlin and Vienna. Here Sibelius encountered musical traditions quite different from the Russian ones. He found himself breathing the air of Beethoven, Liszt, Brahms and Wagner.

Meanwhile back in Finland, resistance against the Russians was growing stronger, and by 1898, when the young composer began his First Symphony, he was trying to write something that had never existed before, a truly Finnish symphony. Immediately after this symphony’s very successful first performance, in an outpouring of nationalist excitement, he wrote a suite of orchestral pictures telling the story of Finnish history; the finale of this suite, which he later renamed Finlandia, made him a national hero for his people, at a time when the Russians were trying to repress Finnish institutions and impose direct Russian rule.

It was in this mood that in 1901 Sibelius took his family for a vacation in Rapallo in northern Italy, a beautiful seaside town. There he began his Second Symphony. The piece took him a year to complete, but its first performance was a huge triumph and took his music – and the idea of the musical distinctiveness of Finland, his native country – all over the world.

So how is this a "Finnish" symphony? It’s a tricky question. Unlike other national composers who wrote symphonies, Sibelius didn’t use folk-music. He did once say, after a boat trip over the Baltic Sea and a visit to the little rocky islands that are everywhere along the Finnish coast, that "anyone who sees those rocks in the water would understand how I write for orchestra." That’s a beautiful idea but it would be hard to explain what it means.

Perhaps the best answer is found in the amazing language of musical forms in Sibelius’s symphonies. A symphony is a drama and a narrative, and in this Second Symphony the composer found a way of approaching that narrative and drama that is deeply original. He took Beethoven’s idea of a story that begins with a single idea which then develops and develops – think of Beethoven’s Fifth – and turned that back to front. In this Second, and in all his later symphonies, Sibelius begins with chaos, with a scattering of very different ideas, and gradually through the four movements of the piece those ideas come together and are revealed to be connected to one another.

And so, in the finale of this symphony, with incredible musical power and emotional force, those ideas finally crystalize into an awe-inspiring melody, an anthem, like the singing of a whole nation as it marches forward into history and, for the first time, into the dignity of existence as an independent country.

Actual Finnish independence didn’t come about until 16 years after Sibelius wrote this music. At the time of its first performance, Finns were still dreaming of freedom from the Russians. Still, it’s no wonder that this music struck its first listeners as a Finnish symphony, a national symphony in a way they had never imagined before. The music seemed to speak to them of everything they longed for.

That’s something a symphony can do.

– San Diego Symphony Creative Consultant GERARD MCBURNEY

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Time 7:30 p.m.
Venue California Center for the Arts, Escondido
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Ciel d’hiver is a short piece, only about 10 minutes long, performed here by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Sibelius often spoke about how impressed he was by the way American orchestras performed his music. Here's LA Phil's version with their then-music director, Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.

There are lots of terrific performances of the much-loved "Strassburg," some played in symphonic style, others in a lighter manner, closer to the 18th century. Here’s a famous one with lots to enjoy.

California Center for the Arts, Escondido