If there was ever a symphony for our time, it’s Sibelius’ No. 7. And it’s practically a hundred years old: completed in 1924, to be precise. Before leading the Greenwich Village Orchestra through it yesterday, conductor Barbara Yahr cautioned the audience that it would be as challenging to hear as it is to play. “But it’s one of my alltime favorite pieces,” she smiled. “What Sibelius says in a phrase would take twenty minutes in Mahler.”
As usual, she was right on the money. She’d always intuited that the symphony’s central theme is love: “It grows more human,” she explained, pointing to how the first movement coalesces and brightens out of ambiguous, restlessly shifting cell-like phrases. She pointed out that the program notes validated that understanding: the scherzo in the second movement is a lively dedication to one of the composer’s daughters, and the warm major-key theme in the third refers to his wife.
The notes also dismissively characterized the work as domestic. Domestic, shmomestic! It’s a relentlessly harried, sometimes haggard piece, and although more optimistic themes take centerstage as it goes on, it ends more enigmatically than anyone would probably expect given the triumph that comes before. Maybe that’s a cautionary tale for us. On an intellectual level, this is the late Romantic Sibelius listening to Modernism and thinking, “Hmmm, maybe there’s something to be said for this twelve-tone stuff.” This performance focused on the emotional content, “I know we’re crazy busy, but I still love you.” And if it isn’t one thing, it’s another. The barrage of ideas and motives flies by like a fast-forward film until at last the sun comes out – and what a warm sun that was, how funny that Nordic music has so many memorable “it’s finally not dark anymore” moments, huh? Yahr managed to bring her signature precision and attention to minute, revelatory detail to this vexing but ultimately rewarding work, one that nobody’s about to conduct from memory, let alone play without the music in front of them.
She and the ensemble bookended it with two considerably more accessible pieces about love: love for freedom, and pure undiluted passion and joie de vivre. The concert opened with a fervent, insistent take of Sibelius’ Finlandia, leaving no question that this was no mere national anthem: it was about giving Russian invaders a swift kick. That spirit brought to mind the similarly unleashed version that Dorrit Matson and the New York Scandia Symphony played at Symphony Space last year.
Pianist Ko-Eun Yi brought equal parts fire and luminosity to Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. Together, she and the orchestra made it swing, made it rock, at the end threatening to crush the piano keys with her savage, fortissimo chords as the coda swung in like a construction crane run amok. No wonder its themes have been plundered by so many rock acts – for example, ELO, who made surf rock out of it, and the Fugs, who would have made it x-rated had their 1967 record label let them. From that bristling, wickedly anthemic six-chord hook that Yi really took her time with, making it resound for all it was worth, through gleaming cascades and dazzling sunset-on-the-waves ripples, she had come to bring the party, and Yahr and the group behind her were only too glad to raise a sturdy foundation and a wide-angle backdrop for all the Romany and flamenco-tinged festivities.
The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next performance is on April 10 at 3 PM at Irving Auditorium, 17th and Irving Place (cattycorner from Irving Plaza), featuring the Mozart Adagio and Rondo, the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 and Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony. Suggested donation is $20, reception to follow.