Program Notes: Vänskä Conducts Kullervo

Program Notes: Vänskä Conducts Kullervo

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Full Program Notes:


Olli Kortekangas
Born: May 16, 1955, Turku Finland;
now living in Helsinki, Finland


Migrations, which receives its premiere performances at these concerts, was commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra to mark the 150th anniversary of the Finnish migration to North America. Migrations is the creation of two artists who represent the arc of that migration: Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas and poet Sheila Packa of Minnesota’s Iron Range. From the start, Migrations was conceived for performance on a program with Sibelius’ Kullervo. Both tell of characters on a quest, and both are scored for similar forces: orchestra, men’s chorus and vocal soloist or soloists. But where Kullervo tells a tale of sin and expiation, Migrations—composed in 2014—sounds a more hopeful note: it speaks of journey, transformation and renewal. Kortekangas drew four poems from two of Packa’s volumes of poetry, Cloud Birds and Echo & Lightning, and together they collaborated on altering a few lines and titles for their use in Migrations.

Both composer and poet have supplied introductions to Migrations. First, the composer, Olli Kortekangas: “I am honored and thrilled by the opportunity to have my music premiered by the Minnesota Orchestra, and very happy to again join forces with Osmo Vänskä, Lilli Paasikivi and the YL Male Voice Choir. 

“From the beginning, my work was planned to function as a kind of prologue to the Kullervo Symphony by my great compatriot. The themes of identity, alienation and migration, so powerfully tragic in Sibelius’ work and the story of Kalevala behind it, guided my search for suitable texts, as well. I was very lucky to come across the poetry of Sheila Packa, herself with Finnish roots.

“The work has a rather symmetric structure with four sung movements, separated—or linked—by three instrumental interludes. The parts of the mezzo and choir (singing a cappella in the fifth movement) complement each other until uniting in the seventh movement. The clarinet, the horn and the cello with their ‘singing’ character are given a prominent role in the interludes, which could be called musical aphorisms on the theme of migration.”

Poet Sheila Packa speaks of the meaning of this project to her:

“Migration has long been a metaphor for me as a poet. All of my grandparents are from the western side of Finland, and I grew up immersed in the Finnish language and culture. I believe that immigration affects families deeply, particularly in relation to borders, language and landscape. Immigrants make massive transitions as they enter a new culture and language, and many believe that speaking a new language brings out different parts of the self. Some feel that they are a different self in the new language. This is perhaps why my grandmother was reluctant to speak English; she wanted to preserve an important part of her self-identity. She lived in Minnesota, but she rarely left Finnish language and culture. This was a border that she kept. I think that landscape also exists internally, in the psyche, and this influences us. Although I did not learn to speak Finnish very well, my English has picked up the Finnish rhythms. Because poems are physiological, their breath—the words, meters, rhythms and sounds—are re-created in the reader. To read my work is to experience the north landscape.

“I myself am most comfortable on borders, and less so in the midst of things. As a poet/artist, I also perceive the permeability of borders. I can cross back and forth into Finnish and American cultures. My work is always narrative, but it does cross the border of genres and perhaps exists in a state of ‘between.’”

Read the poem Migrations (pdf)

Olli Kortekangas studied at the Sibelius Academy as a pupil of Eero Hämeenniemi and Einojuhani Rautavaara and completed his studies in West Berlin with Dieter Schnebel. He has held teaching positions at the Sibelius Academy and the National Theater Academy, and he served as composer in residence with the Oulu Sinfonia from 1997 to 2007. Kortekangas has composed about 140 works, ranging from choral works and instrumental miniatures to orchestral music and operas. He is known particularly for his operas, of which the latest are Messenius and Lucia (2004), Daddy’s Girl (2007), One Night Stand (2011) and Own Fault (2015). His output also includes a number of chamber and solo instrumental works, among them a cello sonata, three organ sonatas and chamber music with voice; recently he has composed several works for period instruments. Kortekangas has received numerous awards, including the Salzburg Opera Prize, the Special Prize of the Prix Italia Competition and the prestigious Teosto Prize.

Sheila Packa lives in northern Minnesota near Lake Superior and writes poetry and prose. She does narrative performance, frequently collaborating with Kathy McTavish and other visual artists, musicians and composers. She has published four volumes of poetry: The Mother Tongue, Echo & Lightning, Cloud Birds and Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range. She teaches English at Lake Superior College in Duluth and often facilitates writing workshops in the community. She performed Night Train Red Dust live in a media presentation at the Fringe Festival in Minneapolis in 2013 and created an online component to the book that includes links to historical archives, images and articles about the Iron Range. She has received a McKnight/ACHF/ARAC Individual Artist Fellowship Grant, two Arrowhead Regional Arts Council fellowships for poetry, an ARAC Career Opportunity grant, two Loft McKnight Awards, a Loft Mentor Award in poetry and a Community Arts Learning Grant.

Instrumentation: solo mezzo and men’s chorus, with orchestra comprising 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet), 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, suspended cymbals, sizzle cymbal, 5 tuned gongs, 2 tam-tams, maracas, triangle, mark tree, crotales, marimba, chimes, harp and strings

Jean Sibelius
Born: December 8, 1865, Tavastehus, Finland 
Died: September 20, 1957, Jarvenpaa, Finland

Kullervo, Symphonic Poem for Singers, Men's Chorus and Orchestra, Opus 7

Two events in 1890 pushed the young Sibelius toward writing Kullervo. The composer began an intensive reading of the Kalevala, the epic poem that would inspire many of his most successful works. He also moved to Vienna, which was then the center of music. There two of the composers Sibelius admired most, Brahms and Bruckner, were still active; neither, however, would take him on as a student. He did study with Robert Fuchs and with Karl Goldmark, and having developed a taste for high living, sought to improve his finances by auditioning to become a violinist with the Vienna Philharmonic. His failure to earn that post probably confirmed for him that his future lay in composition.

It was during his year in Vienna that Sibelius conceived the idea of composing a large-scale setting for voices and orchestra on texts from the Kalevala. He began work in a great surge of enthusiasm, writing: “I am now working on a new symphony, thoroughly Finnish in spirit. This Finnishness has penetrated every inch of me.” Sibelius returned home that summer wearing his dress clothes (he had pawned all his other clothes to pay the debts he had run up in Vienna) and set to work on the “new symphony” at his grandmother’s house in Lovisa on the Gulf of Finland.

Text from the Kalevala used in Kullervo (pdf)

The Story

Kullervo, as the new work was called, was the first of Sibelius’ works to draw on the Kalevala, and from that epic the composer chose a dark and bitter tale. As a young man, Kullervo suffers the slaughter of his family by his uncle Untamo and is himself sold into slavery. He escapes but is trapped in a life of difficulty and poverty. One day he encounters a young woman in a sleigh and attempts to seduce her. Repeatedly rebuffed, he eventually ravishes her and only then discovers that she is his long-lost sister. Overcome with guilt, Kullervo heads off to battle his uncle and, armed with a magnificent sword given him by the chief of the gods, he wipes out the uncle’s entire family. Then, coming upon the place in the forest where he attacked his sister, he braces his sword on the earth and throws himself on it.

Sibelius scored Kullervo for soprano and baritone soloists, large orchestra and men’s chorus, having been warned by his mentor Martin Wegelius that women in the chorus might refuse to sing a text centering on rape and incest. Premiered under the composer’s direction in Helsinki on April 28, 1892, Kullervo was a rousing success. But after it had been presented five times in 1892-93, Sibelius banned all future performances, allowing only a single presentation of the central movement in 1935 to help celebrate the centenary of the publication of the Kalevala. Fortunately, Kullervo was not among the many early compositions Sibelius destroyed. This striking music makes clear that at age 26 he had already developed an individual voice.

Kullervo is a sharply varied work. Three of its movements are purely instrumental, advancing the narrative only in abstract music. Only in the third and fifth movements are voices heard: the male chorus functions somewhat like a Greek chorus, describing action and commenting on its meaning, while the baritone and soprano soloists in the central movement take the parts of Kullervo and his sister. The whole seems to be a combination of symphony and tone poem, perhaps also oratorio.

The Music

introduction. Schoenberg once remarked of Sibelius and Shostakovich that “they have the breath of symphonists,” and certainly we feel that breath in the opening measures of Kullervo, which bursts to life on a great arching theme that will form the backbone of this music. This, the Kullervo theme, announces the heroic nature of Sibelius’ subject and supplies much of his musical material. The music itself tells no tale, but works out its powerful material in sonata form. Other themes follow, including a quiet horn call. After a lengthy development, the movement climaxes on a massive restatement of the Kullervo theme, then drifts into the mists.

Kullervo’s youth. The second movement, set in dark B minor and marked grave, recalls Kullervo’s difficult childhood only in the most general terms. A solemn chant for muted strings at the beginning alternates with bits of folk-like melodies and pastoral tunes in this generously-proportioned section.

Kullervo and his sister. This music, explicit in its horrifying details, unfolds dramatically as violins dance exuberantly in 5/4: Kullervo is returning home from paying his taxes. Along the way he encounters a “yellow-haired maiden” and sets about seducing her. She resists furiously at first, then is gradually tricked into Kullervo’s sledge and ravished (the seduction is depicted by the orchestra alone). In the aftermath, as she recounts her sad history, Kullervo gradually realizes that he has raped his sister. That discovery, accompanied by ringing F-minor chords, brings a violent close to the movement.

Kullervo goes to battle. Marked Alla marcia and set in a spirited 2/4, this battle music is the symphony’s scherzo, full of the sound of skirling pipes, outbursts from the low brass and martial trumpet calls. A dolcissimo violin melody does little to dispel the stern mood.

Kullervo’s death. Now without soloists, the chorus returns to narrate the details of the hero’s death. Returning from battle, Kullervo comes upon the spot where he dishonored his sister. A desolate woodwind theme leads to his fatal dialogue with his sword and to his suicide. A threnody for strings follows, and suddenly the Kullervo theme from the work’s beginning reasserts itself powerfully, and the tale of this hapless hero comes to its conclusion.

Instrumentation: solo mezzo, solo baritone and men’s chorus, with orchestra comprising 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle and strings


Finlandia, Opus 26

Finlandia has become a symbol of Finland and its aspirations, but this music achieved that status almost by accident.

Sibelius composed it in 1899 for what seems like an innocuous occasion—a celebration to help raise money for newspaper pension funds—but this fiery music quickly caught the heart of the Finnish people and became a symbol of their national pride.

Finland had been under Russian control throughout the 19th century, and the movement for Finnish independence had always been strong. When Czar Nicholas II cracked down in 1899 and began an intense Russification campaign, the country nearly exploded with opposition, and it was at that moment that Sibelius wrote this music, which was first titled Finland Awake! So obvious was that meaning that Russian authorities banned its performance, and Sibelius retitled the piece Finlandia when he revised it the next year. The Finns would finally gain their independence from Russia after World War I, but Finlandia has remained a sort of unofficial national hymn ever since.

Yet this music tells no story, nor does it incorporate any Finnish folk material. Many assumed that music that sounds so “Finnish” must be based on native tunes, but Sibelius was adamant that it was original: “There is a mistaken impression among the press abroad that my themes are often folk melodies. So far, I have never used a theme that was not of my own invention. The thematic material of entirely my own.”

Finlandia is extremely dramatic music, well-suited to the striving and heroic mood of the times. Its ominous introduction opens with snarling figures in the brass, and they are answered by quiet chorale-like material from woodwinds and strings. At the Allegro moderato the music rips ahead on stuttering brass figures and drives to a climax. Sibelius relaxes tensions with a poised hymn for woodwind choir that is repeated by the strings (surely this was the spot most observers identified as “authentic” Finnish material). The music takes on some of its earlier power, the stuttering brass attacks return, and Sibelius drives matters to a knock-out close. Small wonder that music so dramatic—and composed at so important a moment in Finnish history—should have come to symbolize that nation’s pride and desire for independence.

For these concerts, the YL Male Voice Choir joins the orchestra at the famous hymn tune, singing in Finnish; an English translation of the text will be projected as surtitles.

Eric Bromberger

About the Author

After earning a Ph.D. in American Literature from UCLA, Eric Bromberger was teaching at San Diego State University when, taking up another of his passions, the violin, he joined the La Jolla Symphony Orchestra. Soon he was also writing its program notes, which drew enough attention from presenters and performers that he quit his day job to devote himself to music. Now, in addition to writing for the Minnesota Orchestra and giving pre-concert lectures for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he is annotator for such organizations as the Kennedy Center’s Washington Performing Arts, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, University of Chicago Presents, San Francisco Performances and the San Diego Symphony. He and his wife Pat love chamber music, and this summer they’re playing in an orchestra that will tour Spain.