WQXR Launches “Conductor’s Choice” Edition of Symphony Hall

Inaugural Series to Feature Maestro George Manahan Presenting Sibelius Symphonies

Fridays, March 12 – April 9 at 8pm

Last Friday, March 12, Classical 105.9 WQXR launched “Conductor’s Choice”, a special new series, broadcast as part of Symphony Hall, drawing on New York’s unique classical community and showcase creative insights and inspirations from those who are defining what is heard in the city’s concert halls and opera houses.

Maestro George Manahan, Music Director of New York City Opera and recently-appointed Music Director of the American Composers Orchestra, presents works that hold a special significance in his own musical thinking.

Each Friday at 8pm, beginning March 12 and running through April 9, Manahan will join Symphony Hall host David Garland to present the symphonic cycle of Jean Sibelius – one of the most revered and beloved cycles since Beethoven’s. Manahan will guide listeners on this epic journey through Sibelius’s symphonies, sharing the importance they hold for him and presenting a handpicked selection of his favorite recordings. “Conductor’s Choice” can be heard on 105.9 FM and is available for streaming and on-demand listening at www.wqxr.org.

An esteemed Sibelius interpreter in his own right, and one whose recent account of the Fifth Symphony was pronounced a “gorgeous performance that often bordered on the rhapsodic” (Columbus Dispatch, Jan 2010), Manahan has assembled a dynamic, distinctive, and diverse group of performances, which include both acknowledged classics and a few surprises. He will explain the thinking behind his choices as well as what draws him, personally, to the Finnish composer’s oeuvre.

It is not surprising that Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) is so closely identified with his homeland, for its natural beauty and its literary and mythological heritage were to prove his most profound inspirations. His music helped unify a Finland struggling for independence from Tsarist Russia, and established him not only as its leading composer, but as one of its greatest national figures. Spanning more than a quarter of a century, Sibelius’s seven symphonies represent very different stages of his stylistic development. As Manahan makes clear, even to those familiar with one of the symphonies, “It’s never predictable where the next symphony is going to go. He seemed to change the rules on every piece.”

Sibelius wrote the original, lost version of his Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 in 1898, at the age of 33, but it is the revised version, completed two years later, with which we are now familiar, that Manahan will examine on March 12. Characterized by its use of string and woodwind solos, the symphony was greatly influenced by those of Tchaikovsky. Like the Russian Romantic, one of Sibelius’s greatest compositional gifts was for melody, as became more fully realized in his next symphony, which he completed in 1902. Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 is, like his first, a Romantic work, suffused with patriotic fervor. With one of his most stirring and uplifting themes in its fourth movement, the Second Symphony, which will air on March 19, is arguably the composer’s most popular.

However, it is the Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52 that Maestro Manahan personally favors. Representing a turning point in Sibelius’s symphonic output, the Third Symphony eschews the grandiose Romanticism of its predecessors for an almost Classical economy of gesture and clean, clear development. As a result, it is considerably shorter than either of the earlier symphonies, enabling Manahan to couple it with the Fourth Symphony on March 26. The Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63 was written between 1910 and 1911, and its introspective tone is reminiscent of the expressionist works its composer had recently encountered. The Fourth is a dark, emotionally intense work, perhaps reflecting Sibelius’s state of mind after having a malignant tumor removed from his throat in 1908. Later, when asked about the symphony, he would quote Strindberg’s claim that “being human is misery.”

On April 2, Manahan turns to Sibelius’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. Originally written in 1915, the Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82 was revised in 1916 and 1919, over which period Sibelius witnessed the impact of such modernist contemporaries as Schoenberg and Stravinsky and received his own first negative reviews. Nonetheless, for the symphony’s final version, he consciously resisted the impulse to compromise his consonant sonorities, and the work is as heroically life-affirming as its forerunner is bleak. The decision paid off, helping to ensure the Fifth Symphony’s status as one of his best-loved, along with the Second, like which it features some of his most rousing and majestic tunes.

The Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104 has left listeners more confused. Completed in 1923, its lyricism and apparent lack of drama rendered it less easily accessible, although critics praised its use of the Dorian mode, and the natural idyll this helped to evoke. Yet according to Sibelius, in a remark published in 1955, “Rage and passion … are utterly essential in it, … supported by undercurrents deep under the surface of the music,” and recent critics have come to judge the work one of his greatest masterpieces.

Sibelius’s final published work in the genre was his Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105. Completed in 1924, the Seventh is notable for being composed in a single movement, owing to the concentration of its material. It is a profound work, powerful in both form and instrumental color, and helps to illustrate Manahan’s belief that “musicians like playing [Sibelius’s music, since] he wrote so well, idiomatically, for the instruments.” Although Sibelius apparently worked on an eighth symphony in the three subsequent decades, no manuscript survives, and it was evidently with the Seventh that he chose to close his symphonic cycle. To conclude April 9’s final episode of this introductory “Conductor’s Choice”, Maestro Manahan balances the symphony with his favorite recording of the famed symphonic poem Finlandia, Op. 26. Written in 1899 and revised the following year, the work evokes the national struggle of the Finnish people, before resolving with a transcendent hymn of Sibelius’s own composition. A youthful work, Finlandia contrasts with the maturity of the Seventh Symphony, and together the two provide a fitting conclusion to this inaugural edition of “Conductor’s Choice”. As the series’ host, David Garland, reflected in a recent blog entry, “Radio brings music directly to the listener. Gigantic symphonies can become an intimate experience.”

Fridays at 8–9pm, March 12 – April 9, on WQXR (105.9 FM) and www.wqxr.org
March 12: Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39
March 19: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43
March 26: Symphonies Nos. 3 in C major, Op. 52 and 4 in A minor, Op. 63
April 2: Symphonies Nos. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82 and 6 in D minor, Op. 104
April 9: Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105; Finlandia, Op. 26

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