“We didn't really have classical music in our home,” says Dutch conductor Lawrence Renes (b. 1970). “When I was young, gymnastics was my main interest. I was to join the Dutch youth Olympic team, but my mother was opposed to that, so I decided not to continue. I wanted to find another activity, and my best friend at school had just started violin lessons. So I thought, why not me, too?” He joined the Netherlands National Youth Orchestra when he was 14, and went on to study the violin at the Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam and conducting at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague.
His appointment as assistant conductor to Edo de Waart at the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic gave Maestro Renes a good start in his career as a conductor, and a last-minute stand-in for Riccardo Chailly for a televised concert at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw put the seal on his success. This concert was later used as the basis for a documentary about him entitled Dream Debut.
Dividing his time equally between opera and symphony concerts, Lawrence Renes has been Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Royal Swedish Opera since August 2012
Ari Þór Vilhjálmsson
Ari Þór Vilhjálmsson (b. 1981) has been leader of the HPO’s 2nd violins since 2016, and tonight’s performance marks his debut as the orchestra’s soloist. When asked to choose a Finnish violin concerto, his first thought was that by Jaakko Kuusisto, even though he does not profess to be a very great fan of contemporary music. The concerto is, he says, extremely well written for the violin, with flowing melodies and virtuoso runs that truly test the player.
Vilhjálmsson has played with and led many orchestras, and worked with the Symphony Orchestra in his native Iceland from 2006 to 2014. He has considerable experience of solo and chamber work, both in Reykjavik and at the New England Conservatory in Boston. He is a member of the Helsinki Chamber Soloists founded this year and teaches at the Harpa International Music Academy in Reykjavik and privately in Helsinki. His instrument is a violin made by Nicolas François Villaume in around 1860.
Jean Sibelius: Finlandia, Op. 26
In 1899, Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) composed the music for a series of tableaux to be performed at some Press Day celebrations at Helsinki’s Swedish Theatre. The occasion was held as a demonstration against Russian oppression and censorship of the press (Finland had been an autonomous Grand Duchy of Imperial Russia since 1809, after centuries of Swedish rule) and the scenes represented various events in Finnish history. The suite culminated in a piece called Finland Awakes. Sibelius later adapted it as a tone poem that was performed under such names as Finland and Finale, and when Robert Kajanus conducted it with the Helsinki Philharmonic at the Paris World Fair in 1900 it was known as La Patrie. It was Sibelius’s friend Axel Carpelan who hit on the title Finlandia.
Finlandia is nowadays one of Sibelius’s best-known and most often performed works. Its hymn became a popular melody, and words were added. Said Sibelius: “If the world wants to sing it, it can’t be helped.
Jaakko Kuusisto: Violin Concerto, Op. 28
A man of many musical talents, Jaakko Kuusisto (b. 1974) has in recent years made a name for himself as the composer of such large-scale works as film scores, concertos (bassoon, trumpet, piano) and operas. His Violin Concerto dates from 2011–2012. Himself a violinist (leader for years of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra), he was already thinking about composing a violin concerto when he received a commission from Elina Vähälä and immediately set to work. Naturally she was the soloist and he was the conductor at the premiere with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in 2012. Together they later recorded it for BIS. Vähälä has performed the concerto dedicated to her in the United States, Austria, Poland and elsewhere.
That this is a virtuoso work is clear from the very first notes, for Kuusisto places a solo cadenza right at the beginning. The music is heroic-romantically melodic. The slow movement follows without a break and is lyrical and darkly dramatic, while the colourful, action-packed finale is a chance for the soloist to demonstrate all her pyrotechnical skills.
Jean Sibelius: Night Ride and Sunset, Op. 55
While writing Night Rise and Sunset, Jean Sibelius was suffering from ill health, and the possibility of death seems to have influenced some of his works. Night Ride never became as popular as some of his other tone poems, such as En Saga, Pohjola’s Daughter or the Lemminkäinen Legends. It is an introverted, bleak work marked by the manic repetition of short motifs and gradual transformation in a way that is almost minimalist. The reception at the premiere in St. Petersburg in 1909 was only lukewarm, and Sibelius was hardly consoled by the fact that the conductor (Siloti) had meddled with it, though his Russian colleague Glazunov was most enthusiastic. But as Sibelius told his English biographer, it portrayed “the inner experiences of an average man riding alone through the forest gloom, sometimes glad to be alone with Nature, sometimes awe-struck by the stillness or the strange sounds which break it, but thankful and rejoicing in the daybreak.”
Leoš Janáček: Sinfonietta
During the last ten years of his life, Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854–1928) had an illicit – though one-sided – love affair with a women 37 his junior. She became his muse; they met now and them and would sometimes go on outings together. Sitting in a park one day, as they listened to the band, he began sketching in some fanfare motifs. When the sports organisation Sokol asked him to compose something for its festival, he used these motifs as the basis for a five-movement Sinfonietta. His last orchestral work, it was premiered in Prague in 1926. The orchestra has an unusually large brass section, including a record number of trumpets, and the music is an astonishing, imaginative mixture of symphony, open-air and concert music. It even has a programme, its movements describing places in his home city, Brno. The Sinfonietta was, he said, intended to express “contemporary free man, his spiritual beauty and joy, his strength, courage and determination to fight for victory.”