Finland’s cultural legacy and the seven symphonies of Sibelius are set to occupy the BBC Symphony Orchestra and its Chief Conductor Sakari Oramo over the course of their 2017-18 season at the Barbican Centre. The Finnish conductor will present the complete Sibelius symphony cycle in company with other works by his fellow countryman, Luonnotar, Cantique and Devotion and Press Celebrations Music among them. Oramo’s BBC Symphony Orchestra programme also includes a rare outing for Aarre Merikanto’s Ekho for soprano and orchestra, the UK premiere of Anders Hillborg’s Violin Concerto No.2, the London premiere of Anna Clyne’s This Midnight Hour, and an unmissable date with Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. In addition to their Barbican season, Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra will undertake a ten-concert tour of Japan (Thursday 1 – Monday 12 March 2018) and perform three concerts in Zurich and Geneva (Saturday 24 – Monday 26 March).
Sakari Oramo and his London orchestra are ready to set the Sibelius cycle rolling on Wednesday 27 September. Their Barbican programme opens with Richard Strauss’s tone poem Death and Transfiguration and continues with Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto. Alina Pogotskina, winner of the 2005 International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition, will perform the Berg Concerto in Douglas Jarman’s revised edition. The concert concludes with Sibelius’ Symphony No.5. “Sibelius Five and Berg’s Violin Concerto are among the highlights of 20th-century music, compositions that speak with such extraordinary emotional force,” the conductor comments. “There are always new worlds to discover in the Sibelius symphonies. We’ve decided not to perform them in their numerical order but rather to place each symphony in context with works that sit well together. After the deeply rewarding experience of performing Nielsen’s six symphonies with the orchestra two seasons ago at the Barbican, I look forward to working on the Sibelius cycle with these wonderful musicians.”
On Friday 27 October, Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra follow their recent performance of Florent Schmitt’s Antony and Cleopatra with an account of his rarely heard Symphony No.2. “Although the Second Symphony is a late work, completed in the year before Schmitt’s death in 1958, it’s a strikingly youthful and fresh composition. We plan to record Antony and Cleopatra and the Second Symphony for Chandos, and want to raise the profile of a composer who influenced Stravinsky, Ravel and others.” Oramo’s programme places Schmitt’s symphony in company with Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand and César Franck’s haunting Symphonic Variations, with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet as soloist in both works.
“Franck’s Symphonic Variations was once at the heart of the repertoire but, probably because of its relatively short span, is not programmed so often today. It certainly deserves to be. I’m delighted that Jean-Efflam will join us for this magnificent work and for Ravel’s concerto.” Ravel wrote his left-hand concerto for Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm while serving on the Eastern Front during the early months of the First World War. Wittgenstein, brother of the famous philosopher, subsequently resumed his career as a pianist by performing with his left hand. He commissioned a series of works from leading composers, Ravel’s fiendishly difficult Concerto for the Left Hand among them. The concert’s final piece, Sibelius’ Symphony No.3, completed in 1907, marked a decisive shift in the composer’s music from Romanticism to a modern classicism. “Although they are very different in so many ways, Ravel’s concerto and Sibelius’ symphony share a great clarity of invention.”
Two Sibelius symphonies and a major new work occupy Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in their Barbican concert on Wednesday 29 November. The programme opens with Sibelius’ Symphony No.6 and closes with his Symphony No.4. Lisa Batiashvili takes the solo part for first UK performance of Anders Hillborg’s Violin Concerto No.2. The violinist gave the composition’s world premiere with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and Oramo in Stockholm in October 2016. “Anders wrote the work for Lisa,” the conductor recalls. “His writing for solo violin is vocal in style, like a song without words, with the violin floating free above a quite static orchestral background. It will be fascinating to hear how the Hillborg sits with two of the most austere Sibelius symphonies. I find the Sixth Symphony to be much more dramatic than it’s usually given credit for, and always try to play up the vivid contrasts between its short violent episodes and its prevailing lyricism. That also complements the deep introspection of the Fourth Symphony. My instinct is to see the end of the Fourth as a mediation on absolute devastation, where not even rubble left behind after it.”
Conductor and orchestra return to the Barbican on Wednesday 6 December with an all-Sibelius programme to mark the exact centenary of Finland’s Declaration of Independence. Their programme opens with the composer’s Press Celebrations Music, written in 1899 to accompany a sequence of tableaux intended to raise Finnish national consciousness in the wake of repressive Russian measures against press freedom. Guy Johnston takes the solo part in Cantique and Devotion for cello and orchestra of 1914-15, a sublime meditation on spiritual optimism and doubt written in response to the First World War. The concert ends with Sibelius’ Symphony No.1 in the version first performed in Berlin in 1900. “The BBC Symphony Orchestra has a tremendously rich Sibelius tradition,” notes Sakari Oramo. “They made one of the great early Sibelius recordings with their live performance of his Seventh Symphony in 1933 under Koussevitzky and have retained a deep collective understanding of the composer’s music. I look forward to celebrating the 100th anniversary of Finland’s independence with them.”
The repertoire spotlight shines on Finland once again at the Barbican on Saturday 6 January 2018. The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo open with Sibelius’ Symphony No.7, a grand single-movement fantasy cast in the key of C major. Finnish coloratura soprano Anu Komsi performs the solo parts in Sibelius’ tone poem Luonnotar and Aarre Merikanto’s Ekho, an intensely beautiful reflection on the myth of Echo and Narcissus by one of the greatest of the generation of Finnish composers who came of age during the 1920s. “Anu Komsi’s interpretations of these two works are truly spectacular,” says Oramo. “Aarre Merikanto studied in Leipzig and made an international reputation as a modernist with works such as Ekho and Pan. He was totally misunderstood and largely ignored in Finland, which led to him feeling the need to change his style to a more folk-like, far less interesting idiom. Ekho, which was written in 1922, dates from his best period, when he explored amazing depths of sound and compositional ideas.” The BBC Symphony Orchestra crowns its Sibelius cycle with the hugely popular Symphony No.2, which the composer described as ‘a confession of the soul’.
Anna Clyne’s This Midnight Hour, inspired by the poetry of Juan Ramón Jiménez and Charles Baudelaire, comes to London for the first time on Wednesday 21 March. The twelve-minute orchestral work stands in company at the Barbican with Britten’s Violin Concerto, performed by Vilde Frang. “She does this piece so well,” observes Sakari Oramo. “It’s a great composition with its life-affirming final Passacaglia. Britten’s concerto has grown deep roots into the repertoire in recent years, but it needs a performer of Vilde’s calibre to sound at its best.” Beethoven’s Symphony No.6 ‘Pastoral’ supplies the second half of Oramo’s programme.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Barbican season concludes on Wednesday 16 May with Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. Sakari Oramo will be joined by a dream team of soloists, with Stuart Skelton as Gerontius, Alice Coote as the Angel and Alan Ewing in charge of the oratorio’s two bass solos. The BBC Symphony Chorus, fresh from their Gramophone Award-winning account of the work, complete the forces destined to explore Elgar’s dramatic reflections on a soul’s journey from death to the moment of divine judgment and into Purgatory.
“Gerontius is an old acquaintance,” says Sakari Oramo with a laugh. “I’ve recorded it and feel very close to this music. I am looking forward to working with Stuart Skelton and his fellow soloists for the first time. I find it fascinating to work on these highly religious pieces, because Christianity is such a huge part of our European culture and musical heritage but is no longer central to it. Gerontius is so dramatic and true to itself.”