Formidable sonic memorials with Brett Dean and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Brett Dean and the FRSO after their roaring performance of Fire Music (2011) on Friday. © Jari Kallio

Concluding his uplifting two-week residency with the Finnish Radio Symphony on Friday, Brett Dean conducted the orchestra in a terrific programme featuring two of his own works, alongside one by Jean Sibelius, followed by some late-night chamber music with the members of the FRSO.

If one was to impose a unifying theme for the evening, death and renewal would perhaps by a fitting candidate. Not only did the concert open with Ariel’s Music (1995), an instrumental requiem in the guise of clarinet concerto, but featured also Fire Music (2011), a large-scale meditation on the 2009 bushfires in Victoria, Austalia, assuming a musical shape worthy of any symphonic design. In the middle, Sibelius’s Scene with Cranes, op. 44/2 (1903/1906), a concert-hall adaptation from his incidental music to the play Death, was heard, as a brief vision of life restored.

Written in memory of Ariel Glaser and her mother Elisabeth, who both died of AIDS, contracted from an emergency blood transfusion, Ariel’s Music, while not programmatic per se, has elements of the real-life the storyline embedded in its musical fabric, at least in some ways.

“It’s fair to say that in the rather difficult, conservative environment of the Reagan administration, emergence of this dreadful virus that was affecting above all the gay community was not simply getting the traction and attention it deserved, because that kind of mind-set didn’t really approve of the life-style choices of those who were suffering most from the disease. But Elisabeth Glaser’s case made it clear to everyone, conservative and liberally-oriented mind alike, that this was a problem for all mankind.

It was an interesting first encounter not only with writing for orchestra, but writing a solo concerto; putting out there the dramaturgy of what a solo concerto is capable of. It does follow quite conventional view of the concerto as the heroic soloist against the mob, in this case, Elisabeth Glaser against the Reagan administration, if you like”, the composer recalled during our recent talk.

Cast in two movements, bearing the titles of Elegy and Circumstances, the twenty-five-minute concerto is scored for solo clarinet and a fairly standard symphonic set-up, with orchestral clarinets omitted and a considerable array of percussion added. Both the solo part and the ensemble writing are awash with various branches of virtuosity, giving rise to a compelling concertante score.

The pensive opening movement lives up to its title, constituting a gripping reflection on the profoundly human tragedy involved. However, the music does not resort to sentimentality, but rather goes deeper into the very essence of mourning and the hollowness of death itself. Clad in shadow-like, translucent textures perhaps not far removed from some of those by Sibelius, Elegy is a deeply moving affair.

Circumstances, in its turn, adopts somewhat more theatrical approach. Here, the clashes between the individual and the collective are given in their musical forms, harnessing the romantic set-up of a concerto into astonishingly evocative piece of instrumental theatre. In context, one is reminded of both the famous storyline of the Alban Berg Violin Concerto (1935) as well as the compelling narrative of John Adams’s Scheherazade.2 (2014) for violin and orchestra.

However, one must not be too literal in one’s programmatic readings. In the end, a lot of Ariel’s Music is built upon the sonic logic inherent in its material. Thus, the score is to be viewed as an instrumental concerto, first and foremost, albeit one with notable extra-musical undercurrents.

An extraordinary performance by the wonderful FRSO clarinetist Han Kim and the orchestra under the composer’s baton, Ariel’s Music was given an utmost evocative reading. A rare combination of meditation and multi-layered virtuosity, their outing was an enthralling one. In terms of articulation and balance, the music was unfolded in admirably detailed manner, giving rise to sonorously refined yet inherently dramatic entity.

Han Kim, the FRSO and Brett Dean rehearsing Ariel’s Music at Helsinki Music Centre. © Jari Kallio

Heard as the second half opener, Sibelius’s miniature tableaux of Scene with Cranes were beautifully unfolded in their distilled intensity. Scored for two clarinets, timpani and string orchestra, the music bears striking evocativeness, achieved with utmost orchestral economy. Pre-echoing the set-up for Fire Music, Dean had the two clarinets perform offstage, their calls being echoed from the gallery; an apt effect, well aligned with the music itself. Wonderfully performed by the FRSO, Scene with Cranes sat well in the evening’s overall musical arch.

Scored for a large onstage orchestra and three offstage ensembles, two antiphonal line-ups of winds, brass and percussion as well as an amplified string quartet, Dean’s thirty-minute Fire Music is certainly one of the most immersive symphonic scores around.

Dedicated to the memory of victims of the Black Saturday Bushfires, Fire Music comes off as an orchestral Missa pro defunctis, with tremendous vistas of earthly Sequentia all the way from the insistently repetitive firewalls of Dies irae to the piercing austerity of the Lacrimosa-tinged closing.

With its musical motives echoed throughout the hall by the ensembles dispersed in space and time, Fire Music is a formidable thing to hear. Alternating between terrific walls of sound and the most subtle moments of chamber music, the score is wrought of tremendous arrays of colour delivered by the full symphonic ensemble, pitched and unpitched percussion, solo electric guitar and the amplified quartet, further enhanced by MIDI sound system.

As a sounding object, Fire Music goes way beyond what words can describe. A lot of it is incredibly tactile, as if the very air had transformed into heat itself. Out of its ashes, a meaningful silence is born; the bed-seed for new sounds to emerge from without as well as within.

Given in astounding performance by the FRSO and the composer, Fire Music is to be counted among the most memorable sonic rituals ever transpired at the Helsinki Music Centre. An immense affair, featuring orchestral brilliance in abundance, the performance will long dwell in memory.

To wrap up the evening, Dean, Kim and the FRSO pianist Jouko Laivuori presented their late-night audience with an atmospheric performance of Night Window (1993), Dean’s opus one, so to speak, for clarinet, viola and piano. A poignant study of various nocturnal states of the mind, the twenty-two-minute trio makes an insightful contribution to the ever-fascinating genre of night music.

While some sections of the music focuses on the delicate, even fragile, sides of the late hours, others pick up the dance-rooted, more extrovert moods. Out of these intriguing basic ingredients, a series of fine-tuned instrumental sequences is assembled, clad in vibrant colours arising from a subtle mixture of conventional and extended techniques.

An intensely intimate performance from Dean and brilliant his partners in crime, Night Window provided an apt afterthought to the extraordinary evening.

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Brett Dean, conductor and viola

Han Kim, clarinet

Jouko Laivuori, piano

Brett Dean: Ariel’s Music (1995) for solo clarinet and orchestra

Jean Sibelius: Kurkikohtaus (Scene with Cranes), op. 44/2 (1903/1906) for two clarinets, timpani and strings

Brett Dean: Fire Music (2011) – Music for orchestra

Brett Dean: Night Window (1993) – Music for clarinet, viola and piano

Music Centre, Helsinki

Friday 21 October, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio

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