The Sibelius Concerto

This weekend, the Ukiah Symphony Orchestra will perform Jean Sibelius’ one and only violin concerto, with Polina Sedukh as soloist.

I fell in love with this concerto as a teen-ager.

In those dark ages, the vast array of modern musical delivery devices simply didn’t exist. The thing that all the kids had was a 45 rpm phonograph, a “record-player,” and all of us had our collection of our favorite 45 records, kept in a box where they stood vertically, to protect them from scratches. We’d carry them to our friends’ houses, listen to tunes, and swap records. We played them over and over until the sound grew grainy. Storing them vertically didn’t preserve them from dust, grit, dull steel phonograph needles, and overuse.

Later, as a teen-ager, I gave up all other Christmas presents for a couple of years in return for an audiophile’s dream: a 33 rpm changer, with a separate amplifier and headphones. That took a LOT of wheedling and whining. You would stack the much larger LP (Long Playing) albums on the spindle, and the platter would drop onto the turntable, the arm would automatically swing and drop onto the starting track, and the music would play. Then, when the album had completed, the arm would automatically move out of the way, the next album would drop onto the turntable, and the needle would again move to the starting track. You could listen to a couple of hours of music without touching anything.

The album business was well under way by then — Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out in 1967 — but LP albums were expensive. I didn’t have a budget for that. What I did have was a library card. And the county library had LPs — mostly classical music.

Sibelius’ violin concerto was in the bin, and I fell asleep listening to it many, many nights. I think it’s fair to say that it helped to shape, and give voice to, my soul.

I have my favorite passages, of course.

There’s a place in the first movement where the violin starts crossing strings, lightly, like a Mozart cadenza, but then it gradually turns into firestorm of shifting chords that simply can’t be contained: he gives up the string crossing and starts sawing wildly in desperate octaves, culminating in thunder from the drums and blaring horns. The raw passion of it is so like the explosive passions of a teen-ager, trying to come to terms with hormones and social pressures and parental expectations in a world that resists making any sense at all.

Then there’s a sweet, rising theme in the second movement that occurs twice, filled with yearning. The first time, it rises and falls back into the general fabric of sound, incomplete, but the second time, it rises, and rises, and rises, and then resolves into a major chord broken by a major seventh — a triumph tinged with unanswerable sadness — and just remembering it gives me chills up and down my neck, and brings tears to my eyes.

And then, the third movement, with its insistent drumbeats and the mad little tunes dancing around them. My favorite passage is the demented elven melody played entirely with harmonics, which is a violin technique where you just barely touch the string in just the right place with your little finger, and it drives the pitch up a full octave with a strange, unearthly, hollow sound.

The Sibelius violin concerto ranks among the most difficult violin concertos to play, and what I’ve heard from the rehearsing musicians is that Polina Sedukh makes it sound easy, drawing an astonishing life and depth from the music.

I, for one, can’t wait to hear it.

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