Sunday, February 5, 2017

Celebrate the Virtues of Immigration with a New Minnesota Orchestra Album

This past Friday the Swedish BIS label released its latest offering of the Minnesota Orchestra under the baton of its Music Director Osmo Vänskä. The album is a two-CD set based on concert recordings made during performances in Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall exactly a year ago on February 4, 5, and 6. The occasion was the world premiere of Migrations, a cantata by Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas, commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the start of modern Finnish immigration to North America. The program that Vänskä conceived complemented this new work with Jean Sibelius’ 1892 Opus 7 cantata Kullervo and capped off the whole affair with the 1900 revision of Sibelius’ Opus 26 “Finlandia” including choir participation singing a patriotic poem by Veikko Antero Koskenniemi.

Given the thoroughly Finnish content of this album, I feel it necessary to begin with a confession. I am one who takes a great interest in following text sheets during performances of vocal music, particularly when I am unfamiliar with the work being presented. The confession is that, after several noble efforts, all of which involved Finnish vocalists, I have yet to figure out how to match the vowels and consonants on the printed page with the phonemes I am hearing! I make this point because Kortekangas may be sympathetic to my plight, which would explain why the texts for Migrations are poems in the English language by the poet Sheila Packa, a Minnesota resident of Finnish descent. Thus, while Sibelius’ Finnish nationalism draws heavily upon source texts and narratives from The Kalevala, Kortekangas preferred the English texts of an American poet reflecting on her ancestors.

The result is highly accessible. Kortekangas is not only comfortable with setting English but does so in such a way that the delivery of the text is almost clear enough to register without the benefit of a text sheet. One reason for this may be that his rhetorical approach to setting text tends to draw upon a fascinating synthesis of declamation and incantation. One might almost think that Kortekangas chose to draw upon the bardic styles behind the oral sources of the texts that Elias Lönnrot drew upon to compile the publication of The Kalevala. To be fair, however, Kortekangas’ notes for the accompanying booklet say nothing about this possible connection. Nevertheless, whether there are “Kalevala roots” to this piece, Kortekangas’ setting of four Packa poems separated by three orchestral interludes makes for highly engaging listening.

It is also worth noting that the choral resources for Migrations are all male, as was the case in Sibelius’ Opus 7. (The ensemble on this recording is the YL Male Voice Choir, originally founded at Helsinki University in 1883.) Kullervo is based on a cycle of six “songs” (numbered 31 through 36) from The Kalevala; and only two of the five movements set any of that text. Thus, most of the “tale within a tale” amounts to an instrumental tone poem. However, the first of those texts is one of the most critical in the entire cycle: Kullervo meets a young maiden while returning home (from paying his taxes), seduces her, and then discovers that she is his sister. (Sibelius entitled this movement “Kullervo and his Sister,” assuming that his listeners knew the tale and did not have to worry about spoilers.) The male choir serves as the bardic narrator with “roles” given to a baritone (Tommi Hakala on this recording) for Kullervo and a mezzo (Lilli Paasikivi) for the maiden. On the other hand the account of Kullervo’s death from the final song is taken entirely by the choir.

Vänskä knows this piece well. He previously recorded it for BIS with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. (Both the YL Male Voice Choir and Paasikivi are also on that recording.) That is the version that BIS included in their mammoth Sibelius Edition release. It was through that recording that I first encountered the piece, so I suppose another confession would be that I enjoyed some sense of familiarity as Vänskä chose to revisit the music with the Minnesota Orchestra.

Of course a stronger sense of familiarity came with “Finlandia” (including the choral participation). That music tended to get played to death and then some back when I was a student. I think that, on the whole, it has benefitted from subsequent neglect. For a heart that has grown fonder as a result of absence, Vänskä’s unabashedly visceral approach can be quite rewarding; and this recording left me wondering what would be the best way to translate the Yiddish verb “kvell” into Finnish!

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