No composer is more celebrated in his native country than Jean Sibelius. The reason is simple. He did just not celebrate Finnish identity in his music, he helped build it. “He is not only a hero of music lovers but a hero of the whole nation,” said famed Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä. “It’s a very unique situation in the whole world.”
Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra since 2003, will bring his acclaimed ensemble on Jan. 28 to Orchestra Hall for its first concert there in 38 years. Along with familiar works by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, the program also will feature a lesser-known tone poem by Sibelius: En Saga (A Fairy Tale). (The title is in Swedish, Sibelius’ first language.)
The Finnish conductor has long championed Sibelius’ music, performing it both with his own ensembles and as a guest conductor worldwide. He and the Minnesota Orchestra have recorded the complete set of the composer’s seven symphonies, with the second disc, featuring the First and Fourth Symphonies, winning the Grammy Award for best orchestral performance in 2014. “I have never been tired of that music,” Vänskä said. “It gets deeper and deeper the more I conduct it.”
As Finland marks the 100th anniversary of its independence from Russia this year, Sibelius and his music are inevitably being celebrated simultaneously. The composer was active from the early 1880s to the late 1920s — the same period in which Finland was establishing itself as a distinct nation. “At that point, Sibelius might have been the most well-known person in Finland internationally,” Vänskä said. “He gave us this idea that we can do great things, and we could be respected. He did that with music.”
Some of Sibelius’ most famous works, especially the tone poem, Finlandia, Op. 26 (1900), draw on Finnish history and help define the nation’s distinctive cultural identity. That work was written as part of a covert protest against mounting Russian control, and it had to be performed at first under several alternative titles, including A Scandinavian Choral March, to avoid the censors. “It’s important for Finnish people – maybe a kind of second national anthem,” Vänskä said.
Written in 1892, En Saga had its debut performance, led by the composer, a year later. Although the Russian-influenced work has a narrative feel, Sibelius did not intend it to tell a specific story. It ends with a clarinet solo that picks up and builds on the work’s opening theme. That section holds special appeal for Vänskä, who played clarinet in Finland’s Turku Philharmonic in 1971-76 and served as principal clarinetist of the Helsinki Philharmonic from 1977 through 1982.
“It comes to a very quiet ending,” he said. “For me, it’s like summer, and you are around the fire outside and it’s get darker and darker, and the story is told and it’s time to go to sleep.”