COPENHAGEN, Denmark - In addition to being the 150th anniversary of Sibelius' birth, 2015 is also the 150th anniversary of the birth of Denmark's best-known composer, Carl Nielsen. So, imagine my excitement when I learned that Denmark's leading orchestra, the Danish National Symphony Orchestra (formerly the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra), would be performing an all Sibelius-Nielsen concert during my stay in Copenhagen. Game on.
The concert was on Saturday afternoon at the Jean Nouvel-designed Koncerthuset: a strikingly modern concert hall - four halls, actually - sheathed in a blue cube illuminated at night by video projections. It was completed in 2009 as part of the Danish Broadcast Corporation complex two miles south of the city center, in the formerly industrial area of Copenhagen known as Ørestad.
As I approached the Koncerthuset from the Metro station, the blue cube seemed to almost float in the falling snow. But, the real magic was on the inside: an in-the-round design similar to L.A.'s Disney Hall or Berlin's Philharmonie, where every seat has near-perfect sightlines and sound, thanks to the work of acoustic advisor Yasuhisa Toyota. From my seat at the front of the top balcony, I felt like I was sitting in the middle of a glacier: every surface was covered in swirls of walnut. Even the backs of the seats featured a fine wood veneer. This place must have cost a fortune, I thought to myself. As I later learned, the Koncerthuset is indeed the most expensive concert hall ever built, costing more than $300 million.
Led by the young Romanian-American conductor Cristian Macelaru, brought in to replace the late DNSO Music Director Raphael Frübeck de Burgos, the sold-out concert began with Sibelius' heroic tone poem Finlandia (1900), which he wrote as a patriotic hymn to his home country in defiance of Russia's attempts to censor the Finnish people. The performance was stirring: I could feel the trumpet staccato and bass drum rumble all the way up in the balcony.
Following was Sibelius' Violin Concerto (1904), featuring soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter. As much of a warhorse as this work has become, it is still, for my money, the most satisfying of the major violin concertos, simultaneously dark and virtuosic. It's worth noting that this is the only concerto Sibelius ever wrote: he was a violinist in his youth, and clearly poured everything he had into it.
Mutter, who has been playing this concerto for nearly four decades, brought a depth and precision to this performance that is almost beyond words. (She recorded the concerto in 2011.) Every sound was articulated, even the impossible flurry of notes that erupted throughout the first movement (Allegro Moderato). In the second movement (Adagio di molto), she allowed Sibelius sad, beautiful music to take over without overdoing the emotion. And, she attacked the mysterious, exotic finale (Allegro ma non tanto) with furious intensity, finishing strong and clear. The entire house erupted in a wild ovation, to which she responded with the strangely sad encore of the Andante from Bach's Solo Sonata in A minor.
As fine as the Sibelius was, I was brimming with anticipation to hear Denmark's leading orchestra perform Nielsen's 4th Symphony, which followed the intermission. Compared with Sibelius, who was recognized as a national hero in Finland during his lifetime - he outlived Nielsen by 26 years - it has taken much longer for Nielsen's music to be recognized outside of his home country, despite the best efforts of a certain NYC orchestra. Even at home, Nielsen's reputation seems to be somewhat less than it should: the concert was billed as "Mutter & Sibelius", as if Denmark's greatest composer's presence on the program were merely an afterthought.
Nielsen, who liked to give titles to his symphonies, called this one "Det uudslukkelige" or "The Inextinguishable." In a letter to his wife Anne Marie, Nielsen explained his meaning.
"I have an idea for a new composition, which has no program but will express what we understand by the spirit of life or manifestations of life, that is: everything that moves, that wants to live ... just life and motion, though varied—very varied—yet connected, and as if constantly on the move, in one big movement or stream...Music is Life, and inextinguishable like it."
The symphony's four movements are played without a break, building in tension right up until the final movement, in which two sets of timpani duel from either side of the orchestra. That gives way to a triumphant theme in the brass and strings, which soared through the concert hall, sending a shiver straight up my spine. I can't imagine any other orchestra playing this music with more passion or authenticity. These guys are good.
In one of those strange quirks of fortune I've long since stopped questioning, the DNSO is appearing at Carnegie Hall this Wednesday with Mutter and Macelaru with almost the same exact program I heard in Copenhagen, swapping out Sibelius' Finlandia for his Valse Triste. So, now you too can participate in the Sibelius-Nielsen celebration for the mere cost of a Metrocard. Tickets and info available on the Carnegie website.
More pics on the photo page.