Conductor John Storgårds. Photo courtesy of the SLSO.

A chilly wind blows through St. Louis this weekend as temperatures drop back to something more closely approximating the norm for late April. By sheer coincidence the musical equivalent of a brisk northern breeze blows through the Touhill Center, as well, as frequent guest John Storgårds steps up to the podium of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) to conduct concerts dominated by his fellow Finn Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) and Danish composer Per Nørgård (b. 1932).

[Preview the music with the SLSO's Spotify playlist.]

Sibelius in 1913
By Daniel Nyblin (1856–1923) 
Public Domain

It may be a bit of a cliché, but for me the music of Sibelius conjures up images of pines, snow, and brisk northern winds. You can hear that in the Sibelius works that open and close the program which are, respectively, “Rakastava (The Lover)” and the Symphony No. 7.  That same feeling is present in the work that precedes the Sibelius Seventh, Nørgård’s 2007 composition “Lysning (Glade)” for strings and percussion, albeit with a more contemporary harmonic palette.

Sibelius was notoriously self-critical, often revising works and even destroying those he deemed inferior. His Symphony No. 8, for example, was never completed and was eventually burned by the composer. “Rakastava” didn’t suffer that dire fate, but the original four-movement 1894 version, for unaccompanied male chorus, was never published. The composer produced a version for men's chorus and string orchestra in that same year, and for mixed choir in 1898, but none of them really caught on.

Finally, in 1912, he recycled “Rakastava” into a three-movement work for strings and percussion (tympani and triangle) and this time it was a hit. The work “captivated audiences” and is now “regarded as a minor masterpiece.” But don’t take my word for it. Listen to the recording by Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra on the SLSO’s Spotify playlist and I think you’ll agree. The romantic yearning of the first movement (“The Lover”) has an unsettled feel that’s accentuated by the occasional interruptions for the melodic flow by an agitated motif in the lower strings and tympani. The brief second movement (“The Path of the Beloved”) is an ethereal scherzo reminiscent of Mendelssohn. And the sense of melancholy in the final movement (“Good Night!... Farewell!”) becomes tragic about halfway through before setting into quiet resignation.

It’s emotionally complex music with just an occasional frisson of the cold north wind.

Per Nørgård
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

Nørgård’s “Glade,” which opens the second half of the evening, feels a bit bleak, as well, but not consistently. There is, rather, a mix of light and shade of the sort you might encounter in a forest clearing. “There is a balance between the number of darker and lighter sections,” writes the composer, “as each ‘light’ section presents the same material as the ‘dark’ section before it—but heard from different instrumental colorings and nuances.” The unresolved feeling of the final moments of the work makes it a perfect companion for the Sibelius Symphony No. 7 that follows it and concludes the concert.

Sibelius completed his seventh and final symphony in 1924 after considerable labor and revisions. This brief (around 22 minutes) one-movement work is, as conductor Joshua Weilerstein writes, “a piece that is barely a symphony at all, and yet carries symphonic logic throughout.” Indeed, at its premiere (with Sibelius conducting) it was billed as “Fantasia Sinfonica” (“Symphonic Fantasy”) No. 1. It wasn’t until a year later that the composer decided that it was, in fact, an actual symphony—and one of which he was proud. “A great success,” he wrote after the first performance. “There is no denying it: my new work is one of the best. Tone and ‘colour’ both powerful.”

A lot of ink and pixels have been spilled in analyses of the Sibelius Seventh over the past century, with much argument about what its actual form might be, what it really means, and other questions that are such great fodder for academic papers and blog posts. Weilerstein’s “Sticky Notes” episode on the work has the advantage of being clear and filled with musical illustrations. I recommend it.

Issues of structure and other musical nuts and bolts aside, though, the ultimate question for the listener is: what does it sound like and how does it feel? To me it sounds and feels mercurial, constantly shifting emotions, defying expectations, and ultimately ambiguous. Now it’s lamenting, now it’s breaking into a little folk dance, now it’s triumphant, and now it’s…over. And it’s not all that clear what actually happened.

Sir Simon Rattle, who conducts the performance in the SLSO playlist, says the Symphony No. 7 ends with an existential scream while Weilerstein says “it is a cosmic ending, almost like the launch of the note C into outer space.” I say it just…stops. And leaves us to decide what happens after that. Grey skies and whistling winds will probably figure into it somehow.

Beethoven in 1803
Painted by Christian Horneman

That said, the concert won’t be all stormy weather. The first half concludes with the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1771–1827), a work with a sunny outlook and strong echoes of Mozart, and especially in the finale, Haydn. Written before but published after the Concerto No. 1, it marks the beginning of Beethoven's dual careers as pianist and composer of concerti for his instrument of choice.

Outside of that finale, Haydn is mostly hiding in this work, though. It's ultimately all Beethoven. That's particularly obvious in the dramatic cadenza, written around 14 years after the concerto.

The last time the SLSO performed the Second Concerto, the ebullient Nicholas McGegan with conducted with South Korean (b. 1994) virtuoso Seong-Jin Cho at the keyboard. This time the soloist will be the remarkable Marie-Ange Nguci (b. 1998), whose biography is impressive, to say the least.

Clearly a prodigy, the Franco-Albanian pianist was only 13 when she won her first competition, the 2011 Lagny-sur-Marne International Piano Competition. That same year she was accepted into Nicholas Angelich’s class at the Paris Conservatoire. Today, she holds degrees in Musicology, Musical Analysis, and Music Pedagogy (Paris Sorbonne, Paris Conservatoire), an MBA in Cultural Management, and a performance diploma in ondes martenot (essentially a Theremin with a keyboard; Messiaen famously used it in his 1949 “Turangalîla-Symphonie”).

Oh, yeah: she’s also studying conducting at Vienna’s University of Music and Performing Arts.

“En Miror” (“In the mirror”), her 2017 debut album on the Mirare label, consists of piano music by composers known for their skills as organists and improvisers: César Franck, J.S. Bach, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Thierry Escaich. And her busy concert schedule includes appearances with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, Minnesota Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and Macao Symphony Orchestra. It’s impressive, one must admit.

The Essentials: John Storgårds conducts the orchestra and soloist Marie-Ange Nguci in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The concert also includes the Symphony No. 7 and “Rakastava (The Lover)” by Sibelius along with “Lysning (Glade)” by contemporary Danish composer Per Nørgård. Performances take place Friday at 10:30 am, Saturday at 7:30 pm, and Sunday at 3 pm, April 19 through 21, at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus. The Saturday evening concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3.

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