Judging by audience reactions and reviews, the Juilliard Orchestra’s recent collaboration with Finland’s Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra was a resounding success in our performances in Helsinki, Stockholm, and Alice Tully Hall in late August and early September. It certainly was for my fellow participants and me. With world-renowned composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen at the helm, the combined orchestra created an energized celebration of the 100th anniversary of Finland’s independence from Russia, with pieces by Salonen, former Juilliard composition faculty member Steven Stucky, and Jean Sibelius.
The ubiquity of cultural significance and pride was enthusiastically explosive, generous, and warm in the musical work, and our positive influence on each other was contagious. And now that we’re back, we find ourselves so inspired by our musical and cultural experiences abroad that we’re all, as concertmaster Brian Hong, a second-year master’s student, put it, “committed to bringing this drive and this zeal to future rehearsals and concerts.”
One fascinating aspect of the trip was the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the culture that was so relevant to the concert program. The study of the Classical music canon, while diverse, is generally focused on German, French, or Eastern European traditions, and so to approach an orchestral program where the first half consisted solely of contemporary music and the second half on the relatively obscure Lemminkäinen Suite by Sibelius was quite foreign and unfamiliar. Shortly after we landed in Helsinki, we were whisked away to Ainola, the carefully preserved final home of Jean Sibelius (1865–1957). A set of manuscript facsimiles lay on top of his desk, and his walking stick and hat hung next to his bed. The original greens and oranges and reds of the house have been preserved—Sibelius’ synesthesia meant that when he saw his green oven he heard a delightful F Major chord. Outside there were fruit and vegetable gardens—we sampled the fantastic berries and apples—with a view of a serene lake, a great source of inspiration to the composer as was the Finnish respect for the earth.
That evening, we met the Sibelius Academy students for the first time and our camaraderie began over fancy hors d’oeuvres of shredded reindeer heart over seasoned baked potatoes. But just as some of us were perplexed by the delicacy (Rudolph?!?), it went both ways. Sibelius cellist Otto-Aaron Takala put it best when he said “The Juilliard students were as curious about us Finns as we were about them.”
Partnerships and friendships were built as we rehearsed and explored the city—farmer’s markets, cafes (where’s the most satisfying espresso?), and the Sibelius Monument, a beautiful metal sculpture of more than 600 steel pipes in a wavelike formation that capture the contours of the Finnish landscape and the flow of Sibelius’ music. We learned to play the Sibelius Lemminkäinen Suite (Four Legends From the Kalevala) with a flowing dynamism that choreographed to the landscapes in the score. One evening over dinner, we heard a lecture about the Kalevala legends, a folklore that Sibelius referenced in some of his compositions to create a cultural fabric for the then-young Finnish nation (Finland got its independence from Russia in 1917).
Bassist Nick Myers later noted that the performances on the tour were a “means toward the end: international fellowship and human connection.”
After that dinner, Salonen took the stage to thank the combined orchestra and answer questions. Juilliard violinist Carter Coleman asked how he balances his professional commitments between conducting and composing, to which Salonen admitted that he required the conducting because composing is such a solitary activity that he would “miss the human contact” so essential to orchestra and music.
That human contact was certainly an integral part of our experience—bassist Nick Myers later noted that the performances on the tour were a “means toward the end: international fellowship and human connection.” An added bonus was that in playing so many concerts together, we developed stronger bonds than we’re usually able to since when we’re at school, the roster for every concert program is different in order to give us the experience of rehearsing and performing concerts with guest conductors in professional circumstances. On tour, though, being with a consistent group of 44 musicians for three concerts led to a camaraderie that was crucial to the passionate energy in the ensemble. “I feel so much closer to my colleagues in the orchestra and members of the staff now,” concertmaster Brian Hong said, adding, “the joy I felt during each rehearsal and concert was quite overwhelming.” Violinist Byungchan Lee said the tour filled him “with a sense of increased purpose and professionalism” and a revitalized excitement about what he could achieve at Juilliard.
Indeed, this connection among the whole orchestra created a dynamic organism that flourished in live concert. The swells of every intense buildup in the Lemminkäinen Suite were met with wavelike body movements through each string section unison. In the Sibelius Valse Triste, which we performed as an encore, the orchestra delayed its responses to Salonen’s elegant and buoyant gestures, playing the oom-pah-pahs of the waltz solely from listening to the delicate pizzicatos from the bass section. In the final concert, the violin and bass sections exchanged smiles, tears, and winks while the violas and cellos swept the entire ensemble off its feet. Both Sibelius Academy and Juilliard musicians basked in the moment, collectively warding off the realization that this particular orchestra would disband seconds after the final notes of the waltz and that the new Finnish and American friends might not be able to reunite for quite some time.
“What a large group of musicians can do is much more powerful than you think. They can unite people in their country’s special year and make people smile and cry,” violinist Sumire Hirotsuru reflected after the tour. “We developed so many emotions, techniques, friendships, and more together as a result of influencing each other in a group. Performance tours are such great opportunities for musicians to do that by spending so much time together.” We hope there will be more tours soon!
Max Tan (MM ’17, violin) is an artist diploma candidate. He holds a Celia Ascher Fellowship.
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