Anthony Bannon | Guest reviewer
This is a small world, big idea story. A story about a place that stretches through more than a century of time; a place where it also seems easy to connect the dots; a place where the dots add up to notions far larger than what seems possible.
First, the big idea.
By their nature, big ideas step outside of words. Music is one of their haunts. And Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) is one of their masters.
Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D-minor, Op. 47 — the artist’s only concerto — was the occasion for big ideas and connected dots Tuesday evening in the Amphitheater. Christopher Seaman, again filling the role of guest conductor, opened the season for the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra last week, performing with Karen Gomyo, virtuoso violinist, who last performed with the CSO in 2011.
This concerto is a force of life, a crucible that suggests it can hold all things, from silence to gravitas, from fragrance to full feeling. Breathing deeply, as if alive, pulsing with life the concerto proposes the unknown; then, a bit like all of us, changes its mind, shifts its terms, invents anew, recalls the past, repeats itself, surprises, satisfies, forges again into new directions, renews itself, reaches for soaring heights and then falls, as if into a sacred space, into silence.
This requires a special gift, and Seaman and Gomyo are up to the task. Seaman, well versed in Sibelius’ work and fond of his language; Gomyo in a vibrant lavender gown playing from memory, without a score before her. Together, they conspired to ignite Sibelius’ quiet, melodic potentiality to a full-tilt kinetic act. That transformation took place right away, during the first of three movements — with the soloist melodically, exquisitely emerging from a faint bed of violins dressed in D-minor, and reaching, extending into gorgeous, life-affirming vigor, jaunty and joyful, passionate yet powerful … which pulled several in the Amp to their feet for impulsive applause, eager to affirm the miracle of what was just heard.
The second movement, an adagio, inspired sheer reverence, and its deep swoon into silence, as if into a sacred space, distilled awe from the audience and readied them for a rousing appreciation of the subsequent allegro pace of the final movement. This final movement was marked by strong timpani and bass, their bold rhythms holding the movement’s looping rondo form, recalling the theme of the first movement, empowering the final rhapsodic rhetoric of the concerto, prompting an amazing dazzle of impossible fingering and bow work from Gomyo.
Now for the small-world ideas. The small world also sweeps around Sibelius, who was considered by George Eastman as a candidate for the first director of Rochester University’s Eastman School of Music. Instead, Eastman instead selected Chautauquan Howard Hanson, who famously held the position from 1921 to 1961. Christopher Seaman, after 13 years as artistic director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, only recently stepped down as the orchestra’s lifetime laureate — but not before giving ample homage during his tenure to both Sibelius and Hanson.
Sibelius also drew the attention of the American watercolorist Charles E. Burchfield (1893–1967), who lived in Buffalo, N.Y., from 1921 until his death. Burchfield considered Sibelius a naturalist soulmate, and Burchfield’s journals, available at the Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College, are filled with comments about the composer’s “power and beauty … magnificent genius … infinite sadness and melancholy that goes with absolute beauty.”
The two men never met, but Burchfield’s journals are loaded with respect for the composer’s “elemental sounds of nature … strange and intricate beauties.” After 16 years as director of George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., (and living in the Brighton house that Howard Hanson built), I stepped down last year and returned to direct the Burchfield Penney Art Center, so I play into this small-world scenario, too.
Burchfield and Sibelius never met, but Burchfield, who made drawings inspired by Sibelius’ work, wondered if they would get along.
“Perhaps I would not like him … so much at variance is a man and his work,” he wrote.
Still, one day Burchfield recorded in his journal, “For breakfast, I played Sibelius’ Violin Concerto … .” A fine way to start the day — an aesthetic version of a Breakfast of Champions.
Burchfield composed his pictures while listening to concert music, recording in his journals the music he enjoyed while painting a particular work. For good reason he also was partial to Alexander Borodin (1833–1887), whose expressive nationalistic music provided a counterweight to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (l840–1893), whose romantic compositions lead to Sibelius. These are the “Branches of Classical Music;” thus, the didactic sensibility of Seaman’s concert.
Seaman is a thoughtful artistic director, always the teacher. His tenure in Rochester left a powerful mark, particularly because of his careful dedication to education. He held pre-concert talks and a parallel series called “Symphony 101,” during which he led the orchestra to analyze and interpret composers, styles and periods of work throughout history.
His cultivated manner is manifest on the podium, too, as his conducting style, while assured, is modest and understated. He appeared here without the tuxedoed flourish of the stereotypical maestro, instead in a handsome, dark red open-necked shirt and a black vest, also unfastened.
The concert evening began with “The Polovtsian Dances” from Borodin’s Prince Igor. It is a familiar excerpt for orchestra, sans voice, because of its flourishing style — an apt opener. The Polovtsian were a Tatar people in Central Asia, an exotic subject as conquerors of a wandering Russian prince — and their dances are rousing and sensual engagements for the full orchestra. Seaman handles it with a modest parsimony, giving the orchestra someplace to go, room to grow, letting the drama unfold for high-style effect.
The conductor’s wisdom also showed with the concert ending with works by Tchaikovsky — another romance from the “Overture” from Romeo and Juliet, here an opportunity to develop the push and pull of love against the counterweight of dark and looming disaster. Seaman’s most frequent conducting gesture was to quiet things down — “softly,” he gestured, so that we could hear, for example, the strings of the harp.
His work is a lesson in civility and grace, even in a red shirt. And the audience, in appreciation of the maestro’s two-concert visit, stood in an applause, saying “thank you” after the four-minute final piece, a lovely lift from the full orchestra into the summer night, the pas de deux from “The Nutcracker Suite.”
Anthony Bannon is executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center and a research professor at State University of New York College at Buffalo. He was appointed as director emeritus and senior scholar status at George Eastman House, the International Museum of Photography and Film, in Rochester, N.Y.