Finnish composer Outi Tarkiainen’s Midnight Sun Variations is an orchestral piece, she says, that
“…is about the light in the arctic summer night, when the northern sky above the Arctic Circle reflects a rich spectrum of infinitely nuanced hues that, as autumn draws near, become veiled in shadow until darkness slowly descends and the sun ceases to rise above the horizon; when Europe’s biggest and most unpolluted wildernesses, the tundra and dense coniferous forests mystified by Jean Sibelius in his last large-scale work, Tapiola (1926), are bathed in countless shades of light.”
Commissioned by the National Arts Centre Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic, Midnight Sun Variations was premiered by the BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Storgårds, the work’s dedicatee, at the BBC Proms on August 4, 2019. It has since been performed over a dozen times in the UK, US, Finland, and Germany, and tonight’s performance constitutes the piece’s Canadian premiere.
Along with the changing arctic light as summer transitions to autumn, Tarkiainen notes an additional inspiration for her work:
“My first child was born on the night when the summer’s last warm day gave way to a dawn shrouded in autumnal mist. Midnight Sun Variations is also about giving birth to new life, when the woman and the child within her part, restoring her former self as the light fades into autumn.”
“The work begins”, she describes, “with a sparkling ray of sunshine: the orchestra radiates and rises, playfully traces its round and goes back to the beginning again.” A cascade of scales in the woodwinds and strings marks the beginning of each new cycle (or variation), followed by various musical gestures evoking natural phenomena—shimmering light, bird calls, wind. “Solitary wind solos soar above the orchestra, softly proclaiming the peace of the summer night to answering sighs from a horn.”
Then, “a new beginning finally emerges in the strings: a chord beating with rugged primitive force that fills the whole space with its warmth.” At this point in the score, Tarkainen includes this quote by Robert Crottet on the land of the Skolt-Lapps from Fôrets de la lune, 1949: “It is not our fault if, in your country, dream and reality are so closely bound together that one cannot well distinguish one from the other.” Tarkiainen continues, “This sets off a pulse of constantly remixing chords that ultimately fires the whole orchestra into action, until the strings break away, ascend to the heights and impart maybe the most important message of all.” A seismic climax signals the moment of change—from summer to autumn, the birth of a child. Gradually, the piece fades on melodic fragments in the violins, amidst a brooding and shimmering backdrop.
Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley
III. Rondo: Allegro assai
“I tell you before God, and as an honest man, that your son is the greatest composer I know, either in person or by reputation.” According to Leopold Mozart in a letter to his daughter Nannerl, these words of praise came from no less a figure than the great Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn, who witnessed the premiere of the D minor Piano Concerto with Wolfgang as soloist on February 10, 1785, at Vienna’s Mehlgrube Casino. Haydn wasn’t the only one captivated by the work: the young Beethoven became a notable interpreter. It was one of the few works by Mozart that was played throughout the 19th century—Felix Mendelssohn had the concerto in his performing repertory, as did Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Today, it continues to be a favourite with concert pianists and audiences.
No. 20’s minor mode is unusual among Mozart’s concertos (Piano Concerto No. 24, K. 491, is the only other in a minor key) and is an essential contributing element to the work’s tempestuous character. Within its brooding atmosphere, an intense musical drama arises between the soloist and orchestra. The first movement begins mysteriously, agitatedly, with throbbing syncopations in the upper strings, and urgent rising figures in the cellos and basses. Tension steadily mounts to a full orchestral outburst, which becomes a recurring motif. Solo piano enters with a new theme, somewhat melancholy and wistful, after which it's caught up in the orchestra’s turmoil. Later, the piano presents a gentle second theme in the major mode, but the melody’s reassuring quality is soon disrupted by an orchestral flare-up. In the middle section, the piano’s first theme and the strings’ opening syncopations and figures are revisited in alternation, after which the piano undertakes a sequence of brilliant passages. The main thematic materials are then reprised between piano and orchestra in an artful interweaving. After the soloist’s cadenza, the orchestra has one last stormy flash before subsiding at the movement’s close.
The Romanze is a gentle serenade, the melody of which solo piano and orchestra take turns singing. Its presentation alternates with two episodes; in the first of these, the piano calmly elaborates, as if the continuation of a reflective operatic aria. By contrast, the second episode, in minor mode, is all nervous anxiety, as the solo piano traverses across the keyboard with rapid triplets, while the woodwinds intone expressive phrases and sustained chords. Turbulence returns in the finale, which the piano launches on its own with a defiant theme, followed by an orchestral response of fierce intensity. As the movement progresses, this conflict is gradually diffused, including by way of a jaunty woodwind tune. Listen for how this tune later tries to be serious in the minor mode, but then, after the soloist’s second cadenza, it emerges, bright and cheerful, reassuring us that all’s well at the end.
Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley
II. Adagio: Sehr feierlich (very solemn)
III. Scherzo: Nicht schnell (not fast)
IV. Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (animated, but not too fast)
Anton Bruckner began composing his Sixth Symphony in September 1879. He worked on it periodically, finishing the score two years later in September 1881. The second and third movements were performed in Vienna in February 1883, but it wasn’t until 1899 that the symphony was given in its entirety, albeit in a heavily edited version, conducted by Gustav Mahler, also in Vienna. The first performance of the original score occurred in 1901, in Stuttgart, conducted by Karl Pohlig.
The expansive scale of Bruckner’s symphonies and the distinctive manner in which they unfold sometimes pose challenges to comprehension, so it’s worth mentioning here some stylistic hallmarks that may help guide listening. For one, the general progress of these works can be said to trace a large narrative arc akin to a pilgrim’s journey of faith—through spiritual struggle to triumphant redemption, a concept undoubtedly shaped by the composer’s own devout Catholicism. One way Bruckner achieves this sense of advancement is via frequent harmonic modulation, never settling in one key for long, and thus deferring resolution until the end of the movement or the symphony. The uncertain feeling caused by these shifts are underscored by sudden changes in thematic character and dynamics. Musical material is often presented in block-like sections, juxtaposing delicate, pastoral episodes with monumental, granitic walls of sound; these develop into climaxes, though rarely resting at the summit except at the final climax usually at the work’s conclusion. All these aspects are present in the Sixth Symphony.
Violins on a driving rhythmic figure set the stage for the first movement’s noble theme, first played quietly by cellos and basses, later boldly proclaimed by woodwinds and brass. Soon after, the vigorous energy dissipates, giving way to the violins’ gentle second theme. Against a backdrop of three beats to one long beat, the melody assumes a waltz-like lilt. In the central development section, triplet arpeggios accompany the first theme in a lyrical inverted version. The energy gradually builds to a grand brass statement of the main theme—listen here for the drastic shift from E-flat major to A major, keys sonically worlds apart. After a reprise of the second theme, the music resets and cycles through rising waves of the main theme, culminating in a blazing declaration by the trumpets at the movement’s end.
Richly orchestrated and deeply expressive, the Adagio is the Sixth Symphony’s emotional heart. Three main melodies are presented in turn: the first serious and pensive, in the rich lower register of the violins; the second sincere and passionate, its opening gesture played by cellos then by the violins at half the speed; the third, solemn violins. They take on greater emotional significance upon their return—the first theme expanding to the biggest climax of the movement, after which we luxuriate in the world of the second theme. The Adagio winds to the close after the third theme’s reprise through a closing section of tender nostalgia.
The Scherzo is characterized by a restless energy and quicksilver textures. On occasion, the orchestra erupts suddenly with brass at full force. The contrasting trio has a pastoral quality, featuring three horns sounding hunting calls, with warm responses by the strings and bucolic woodwinds.
In the finale, any sense of structural and emotional coherence is tested by abrupt changes in vastly contrasting thematic characters—spiritual trials in musical form, perhaps. It opens quietly with anxious phrases in the violins propelled by a plucked descending bass line with viola tremolo. After an initial burst, the brass intone a menacing descending motif, and then a fanfare, reaching a brief triumph. The movement’s charming second theme follows, introduced by the strings in counterpoint. Later, there are glimpses of peace and calm as the brass attempt to reassert their menace; a massive full orchestral passage toils to achieve resolution but is unsuccessful. More starts and stops ensue, as the second theme is reprised first, then eventually the first phrases. Finally, after building through the descending motif, the trombones close the symphony with a full-glory version of the first movement’s opening theme.
Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley
Yosuke Kawasaki (concertmaster)
Jessica Linnebach (associate concertmaster)
Noémi Racine Gaudreault (assistant concertmaster)
Soo Gyeong Lee*
Mintje van Lier (principal)
Winston Webber (assistant principal)
Jethro Marks (principal)
David Marks (associate principal)
David Goldblatt (assistant principal)
Rachel Mercer (principal)
Julia MacLaine (assistant principal)
Joseph Phillips (guest principal)*
Hilda Cowie (acting assistant principal)
Joanna G’froerer (principal)
Charles Hamann (principal)**
Kimball Sykes (principal)
Christopher Millard (principal)
Lawrence Vine (principal)
Julie Fauteux (associate principal)
Karen Donnelly (principal)
Steven van Gulik
Donald Renshaw (principal)
Chris Lee (principal)
Feza Zweifel (principal)
ASSISTANT PERSONNEL MANAGER
Non-titled members of the Orchestra are listed alphabetically