When Sir Colin Davis lifts his baton to begin the Great Performers season‹on September 28, just three days after his 78th birthday‹he will have every reason to feel satisfied. He will be with the London Symphony Orchestra, with which he has had a long connection, beginning four decades ago when he was making many of his classic Berlioz recordings with this ensemble, and peaking in 1995, when he became its music director. He will be conducting the Verdi Requiem, a work taking him back to the beginning of his career, when choral music and opera were already high among his priorities. And he will be in New York, where he has been a frequent and cherished guest, and where he and his orchestra have enjoyed annual residencies in recent years.
Also on the program this month will be Sibelius's "Kullervo,"the composer's "Symphony No. 0," written before his No. 1 and cast as a concert-form retelling of episodes from the "Kalevala," the Finnish national epic. In addition to two soloists (on this occasion the mezzo-soprano Monica Groop and the baritone Raimo Laukka), the work requires a choir of tenors and basses. If, therefore, the London Symphony Chorus would have to be involved, Sir Colin wanted to offer something that would present them fully; hence his choice of the Verdi Requiem for this visit. That work will put on display an international set of soloists: the German soprano Anne Schwanewilms, the Hungarian mezzo Ildiko Komlosi, the U.S. tenor Stuart Neill, and the Bulgarian bass Orlin Anastassov in his New York debut, all promising a performance of vivid drama. In addition, as during previous visits, this classic British orchestra will perform timeless British favorites, including symphonies by Vaughan Williams (No. 6) and Walton (No. 1).
When it is suggested that Sir Colin's deep engagement with Sibelius's music came rather late in his career, he immediately counters with a reminder of a concert he had given at the London Proms in 1969‹an extraordinary concert that brought together three great works of 1912: Pierrot Lunaire by Schoenberg, The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, and, between those two daunting works, Sibelius's Fourth Symphony. At the time, that program had been revolutionary in setting two exemplary instances of early 20th-century modernism‹indeed, the two most often quoted instances of radical change‹alongside a work by a composer generally regarded as a late Romantic, a composer whose music was thoroughly in tune with the 19th century. The invitation was to find Sibelius no less challenging than his younger contemporaries, and, perhaps still more provocatively, to discover continuity with the Romantic past in Stravinsky and Schoenberg as much as in the Finnish giant.
It was a prescient moment, for Sibelius has now firmly taken his place as a forefather of the present. His models of steady process, with traditional harmony maintained but reconfigured, have provided encouragement to composers coming out of his own Baltic area in the last quarter century. He has seemed to be a close companion, as well, of such distant and contrasting composers as György Ligeti and John Adams. At the same time, Sibelius's status has been shifting thanks to performances and recordings, not least those of Sir Colin in the developing search he took up in earnest with the Boston Symphony in the 1970s and has continued with the London Symphony.
"Kullervo" is part of that project. Sir Colin is one of very few conductors from outside the Baltic-Nordic region to have programmed the work repeatedly and to have recorded it. The score is Wagnerian in its subject matter (Kullervo is a primeval hero who, unknowingly, couples with his sister, goes off to war, and kills himself on the site of his disgrace), and somewhat Tchaikovskian in its musical background, but also thoroughly Sibelian in its long spans sustained by slow-moving harmony and its evocations of ancient and natural worlds. Here Sir Colin combines it with one of the composer's shorter and later "Kalevala" illustrations, the tone poem "Pohjola's Daughter."
Of the two British works at the end of this visit, Sir Colin feels that Vaughan Williams's Sixth is the most powerful of the composer's nine symphonies. Written in the mid-1940s, it begins in passionate unrest and reaches towards a dead-cold finale, displaying qualities of fury, bitter irony, and bleakness more often associated with Shostakovich. Walton's First Symphony, from the decade before, also has Russian connections, although more with Prokofiev, and it follows a clear emotional program, with a more positive destination.
Both of these symphonies suit Sir Colin's aims and temperament‹as do the works of Verdi and Sibelius that he will be conducting. Pressed to speak of himself and how he views his work, which he is not inclined to do, the conductor becomes somewhat reflective.
"One hopes that one develops: otherwise, what's the point of the journey?" he says. "I think I've sorted out much more satisfactorily what I'm trying to do, which has something to do with freedom, and with momentum. It's the sense of music as a game with time, of music as movement through time, with no sequence of even two bars moving in exactly the same way. You know how the pattern of a Persian carpet will be full of 'mistakes' that give it rhythm and life. So it is with music, that out of the small degrees of latitude comes this feeling of a moving whole."
Paul Griffiths writes frequently about the arts.