The rousing performance by the Alexander Orchestra of Sibelius’ Symphony No.2 was a highlight of the first week of camp. 2020 Words About Music participant Nicky Gluch spoke to conductor Tzelaw Chan about the enduring power of the work.
Tzelaw, this Saturday you’ll conduct Sibelius’ Symphony No.2, which has political connotations. Do you think Sibelius intended to be a political figure?
No, I think there is quite good background research on the fact that Sibelius did not – in fact his mother tongue wasn’t actually Finnish, it was Swedish – though he did marry into a family who were connected with politicians. But he became well known partly because some of his compositions were well timed, either by design or by accident, where the sort of nationalistic fervour was growing. It seems that the Finnish heard what he wrote and were able to identify with it and I think that contributed not just to his success but to his identity, and the rest is history.
That identification is certainly strong, as the Finnish dubbed the symphony their “Symphony of Independence”. How much of that narrative is in your head when you conduct the work?
Well, I do have a personal narrative of what I think the story could be, but it is interesting to note that there are actually two schools of thought in this area, because Sibelius denied that there were any programmatic inclinations in his composition. I don’t think many people believe that. I think, as a performer, as we try and help bring music to life, it’s necessary to have imagery and narrative, so I have my own narrative, but it is not a one-way street; it’s very important for me to hear how the musicians play [the work], because they have their own narrative too. What I look for is how we can collaboratively tell one story.
So what do you feel the orchestra has been bringing to the collaboration?
Well, I know that about a quarter of the orchestra had, in fact, performed this piece before with other orchestras, but you know it’s never the same when you perform a work again, because the circumstances are different, the musicians you work with are different, the conductor might be different, it might be in a different place, as we are here in Adelaide with the amazing AYO program. I didn’t get a sense, however, that it was anything but fresh in their minds and so, as we’ve been working, there’s been this sort of evolving, expressiveness as the narrative begins to link up.
How exciting! Returning to politics, however, why do you think people want to read political messages into Sibelius’ work?
I’m not sure this applies only to Sibelius. Perhaps the reasons are the same every time we read a book, or listen to a piece of music; it could be that we are also looking, or searching for something, and it could be quite personal. However, perhaps one of the reasons we can keep listening to a piece of music and keep coming back to it, is because each time we hear it we might be looking for the same thing, or we might be looking for something else. And the great, wonderful, thing about music is that it can speak so many narratives.
Who do you think the Symphony would best resonate with today?
Well, the orchestra is made up of relatively young people but they seem to get it straight away, so I think it is very likely that it doesn’t matter where we hear it and who’s listening to it. It is a deeply emotional work, quite powerful, and I think one doesn’t need any pre-conditioning to be totally absorbed in it, so, from that perspective, it really should be quite accessible to most people.
Listen to AYO’s podcast for more on conducting with Tzelaw Chan: