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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Secret Messages

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In 1899 Finland was just another province of the Russian Empire, but Finnish patriotism was ever on the rise. Even so, movement toward independence had to be cautious. That year, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) responded to a request for music ostensibly for festivals to be held in aid of the journalists' pension fund. In reality, the effort was aimed at the struggle for freedom. Sibelius composed several short works, including a "Finale" that proved so rousing that the Tsarist authorities at once banned it. Sibelius later dubbed his banned tone poem Finlandia, Op. 26. It quickly spread across Europe, indisputably securing Sibelius a place in the international concert repertoire. "We fought 600 years for our freedom," Sibelius remarked about the piece. "My Finlandia is the story of this fight. It is the song of our battle, our hymn of victory."

One year later, Sibelius continued to inspire his countrymen with music derived from Finland's great national saga, the Kalevala; this being the Lemminkäinen Legends, Op. 22, based upon the young and dashing Don Juan of the epic. The fourth movement (Lemminkäinen's Return) is the suite's splendid rondo and exuberant finale.

The concerto was a genre that always attracted Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), from his youth in Tsarist Russia, through his years in the West, to his final years in Moscow. His Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63 (1935) coincided with his first stage work for the Soviet public, the ballet Romeo and Juliet, both works clearly intended to be accessible to the public at large. Laid out in traditional three-movement form, Prokofiev's G Minor Concerto, though possessing a challenging solo part, displays little in the way of overt virtuosity. Overall there is simplicity of statement, but dark undercurrents are detectable as well.

Another composer who often expressed his true feelings through musical undercurrents was Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). Following the triumphant and optimistic-sounding Fifth Symphony (in which Shostakovich imbedded plenty of hidden meaning), Symphony No. 6 in B Minor Op. 54 was something of a puzzle to Soviet authorities. An opening largo, both lyrical and spacious, is followed by two short, spirited scherzandos. However, underneath the playfulness lies a curious emptiness. The Sixth Symphony ends not in triumph but with a noncommittal shoulder shrug.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and conductor Olari Elts perform these four works at Uihlein Hall on April 3 and 4. Violinist Viviane Hagner is the soloist for the Prokofiev concerto.

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