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MUSIC REVIEW: Sibelius festival starts with sing-along


Bard Music Festival/ Bard College

THE OPENING CONCERT of the Bard Music Festival always presents a wonderful overview of the work of the chosen composer. I’ve attended most of them and invariably enjoyed learning the range of that summer’s composer.

The August 12 opener, “Jean Sibelius: National Symbol, International Iconoclast,” was no different, and in addition, it offered an experience unique in the BMF annals, as I know them: an audience sing-along.

The concert began with the well-known “Finlandia,” by Sibelius (1865-1957), which he wrote in 1900. If the tune has popped your head, you’ve probably got it right. Inserted in each copy of the festival program was the sheet music for the first two verses of the “Finlandia” hymn. The English translation had been hand-printed underneath the Finnish lyrics:

Fin-land be-hold, your day has now come dawning;

Ba-nished is night, its menace gone with light

If you hadn’t remembered the tune before, surely you do now. Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, had us sing through both verses to practice, and then we sang them again, accompanied by the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Botstein in his role as the orchestra’s music director.

It was a delightful interlude, following Botstein’s information-packed preconcert talk and as a start to an evening of mostly orchestral works.

As Botstein had reminded us, Sibelius was, for the most part, an orchestral composer. Nevertheless, between “Finlandia” (the well-known tune is the center of the longer work) and Symphony No. 3 in C Major (not often done, said Botstein, but a “real gem”) was a marvelous interlude of four violin pieces from “Humoresques,” beautifully played by Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud.

After the intermission, Christiane Libor, soprano, sang a lovely “Lounnotar” before the final symphony, No. 5. The fifth is one of Sibelius’s best-known symphonies, said Botstein, but “not as dark as the others.” And, he warned, we must hold our applause till the true ending.

Indeed, I counted three walls of sound that filled the 900-seat Sosnoff Theater (each of which felt final), the classical equivalent to a Bruce Springsteen concert I attended at Madison Square Garden years ago. As far as I can tell we had the full orchestra on Friday–84 instruments including 26 violins, 11 cellos, 8 basses, 2 harps and one celeste.

“Imagining Finland” was the theme of last weekend’s programs. This coming weekend addresses the question, “Sibelius: Conservative or Modernist?” Programs begin with a two-part symposium, “Architecture, Design, and Finnish Identity,” on Friday, August 19. Both parts –10 a.m. to noon and 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. are free and open to the public. So is a panel discussion, “Sibelius and the 20th Century,” Sunday, August 21, at 10 a.m. Author Ian Buruma moderates the panel, and Botstein is one of the participants.

The first concert this weekend is “Nordic Purity, Aryan Fantasies, and Music,” at 8 p.m. Friday, August 19 (preconcert talk, 7 p.m.). In addition to Sibelius, composers on the program include Anton Bruckner and Amy Beach.

The final concert, “Silence and Influence,” is Sunday, August 21, at 4:30 p.m. (preconcert talk, 3:30 p.m.) In addition to Sibelius, composers on the program are Samuel Barber and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The Bard Music Festival takes place on the Bard College campus, on Annandale Road off Route 9G in Annandale. For a full schedule and ticket information, visit or call the box office, 845 758-7900.

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