by Sam Juliano
The Ridgewood Symphony Orchestra have been performing for seventy-six years in the affluent Bergen County, New Jersey town that bears its name. Their annual concert schedule usually allows for three full venues, which are usually organized by way of form, common instrument, composer or theme. The concert of Friday, November 7 brought together two famed organ compositions – Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and Camille Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3, also referred to as the “Organ” Symphony. Completing the classical quartet that comprised the concert were two renowned nationalistic works: Finlandia by Jean Sibelius and The Moldau (Vltava from Ma vlast). While no classical music lover attends these local venues because they are expecting the polish, expertise and experience of the New York Philharmonic, they usually are able to revel in the passion and commitment of an ensemble that includes talented music students from local high schools and orchestral free lancers who are thrilled to secure such opportunities.
The idea of nationalism has been subverted in recent years, as the intended spirit has been hijacked by fanatics, who equate patriotism with terrorist acts against innocents. Yet as he grew up Sibelius lived in a Finland controlled by Russia. He also lived in a time when his countrymen were expected to speak Swedish. Sibelius dodged these resented influences to attend a Finnish School, where he later developed an appreciation of his country’s rich literary tradition, which many years later he turned to when he wanted to write music to express his opposition to the Russianization of his country. The patriotic poem, “The Melting of the Ice on the Ulea River” served as an inspiration for a four-episode tone poem, which eventually came to be known as Finlandia. One of the most stirring compositions in the classical repertoire, this “tone poem for orchestra” has long been regarded as the unofficial Finnish national anthem, and it debuted at the Paris World Exhibition of 1900, where it was performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic. The piece opens with repeated brass turbulence which projects a measure of foreboding. Ridgewood’s players were fully up to this provocative opening statement, which segues into a benign calm before the storm, and then on to a brisk and energetic passage in celebratory mode before the rapturous and expansive main theme makes its appearance – a theme of incredible emotional power that would rouse even those in a coma with its hymn like coda that beckons it’s listeners to offer their undivided attention and reverence. You don’t have to be Finnish to be moved to tears. One of western music’s most renowned melodies then yields to a comparatively bombastic passage which encores the rapturous hymn at the start, but it is clear what passage has won its listener’s hearts. (more…)