The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 9 (for Trombone and Orchestra)

About the Work

Kalevi Aho Composer: Kalevi Aho
© Richard Freed

The Symphony No. 9 was composed in 1993-94 under a commission for the Helsinki Festival; the premiere was given there on September 2, 1994, by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra with the same soloist and conductor who subsequently recorded the work in Lahti (for BIS) and who now introduce it into the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts: Christian Lindberg and Osmo Vänskä, respectively.

In addition to the solo trombone (and the sackbut, which the soloist is also required to play), the score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, baritone horn, trombone, tuba, timpani, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, bells, claves, vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel, harpsichord, celesta, and strings. Duration, 32 minutes.

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Kalevi Aho is by any measure one of the most remarkably productive figures in his country’s amazing musical life. Following his studies with Einojuhani Rautavaara at the Sibelius Academy, he took further work with Boris Blacher in Berlin, and then began an academic career himself, first as lecturer on the music faculty of Helsinki University and later as professor of composition at his alma mater. He is the author of six books, including a study of the symphonies of his teacher Rautavaara and, most recently, a biography of an earlier compatriot, the composer Uuno Klami, for which Marjo Valkonen was co-author. Mr. Aho has restored or completed lost or unfinished works by Sibelius and Klami; he orchestrated Mussorgsky’s song-cycle Songs and Dances of Death for the basso Martti Talvela; he has organized performances of contemporary music, and he is without question one of the most respected Finnish composers of his generation, having achieved that status with proper reverence for his artistic forebears but in a musical style entirely his own. Among his compositions are four operas, twelve symphonies, six concertos for various solo instruments, three chamber symphonies for strings, some song-cycles, and a good deal of chamber music.

Several of his works, among them his Symphonies Nos. 8-11, have been written for and introduced by Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, who are engaged now in recording all of his orchestral works for BIS. He has been that orchestra’s composer-in-residence since 1992, and in the following year a composition grant from the Finnish government, effective for a 15-year term beginning 1994, enabled him to step down from the faculty post he had held for five years at the Sibelius Academy and devote himself entirely to composition and writing on music. All of his Lahti symphonies have been composed since then, No. 11 for the opening of that orchestra’s new home, Sibelius Hall, in March 2000. Four months after that Mr. Vänskä presided over the premiere of Mr. Aho’s one-act opera The Book of Secrets (part of the trilogy The Age of Dreams, whose two other component works were composed by Herman Rechberger and Olli Kortekangas), at the Savonlinna Festival. More recently he composed his Luosto Symphony (No. 12, for two orchestras, eleven “mountain musicians” and two singers), under a commission from the Finnish Radio, scheduled for on outdoor in Lapland in August, with the Finnish Radio Orchestra at the foot of Mount Luosto, the Lapland Chamber Orchestra up on a slope, and the audience seated between the two orchestras; the conductor will be the latter orchestra’s chief conductor John Storgårds (better-known outside Finland as a violinist who has recorded some interesting concertos). In the meantime Mr. Aho is at work on another new orchestral work for the Tapiola Young Symphonists to introduce in November, and among his other current commissions are a concerto for two cellos, on order for the Manchester Cello Festival in May 2004, and the Symphony No. 13 for the Lahti orchestra’s celebration of the fifth anniversary of its Sibelius Hall in March 2005.

Several of Mr. Aho’s symphonies are actually concerted works, showing characteristics of both symphony and concerto. Thre Third Symphony (Sinfonia concertante No. 1, 1971-73) is for violin and strings (Mr. Aho also composed a more conventionally constituted Violin Concerto in 1981); the Sixth, though not so titled, is a sort of concerto for orchestra, with “group solo parts” for the various sections of the orchestra; and three of the four Lahti symphonies are also in this category: No. 8 (1993) is a grand-scaled work for organ and orchestra; No. 11 is for six percussionists and orchestra (the Swedish ensemble Kroumata took part in the premiere), and the present work, for trombone and orchestra, follows the example of the Symphony No. 3 in being designated Sinfonia concertante No. 2.

This work was designed as a sort of contrasting companion piece to its immediate predecessor in Mr. Aho’s symphonic cycle, No. 8 for organ and orchestra, and to register that point No. 8 was performed in the concert in which No. 9 was given its premiere. The contrast in this respect is between the grander proportions and more serious nature of the Eighth, on the one hand, and the relatively lighter substance of the Ninth, which, as has been observed frequently, alludes quite openly to different periods in musical styles, ranging from homage to the past to glimpses of the future. In respect to the past, the score not only includes a harpsichord, but calls for the soloist to lay down his modern trombone here and there. These are clearly gestures of acknowledgement, however, in a work focused firmly in its own time, with the sort of demands on the soloist that a virtuoso soloist relishes, and with Mr. Aho’s customarily brilliant and imaginative assignment of brilliant colors to the orchestra.

Short of a formal musical analysis, it might be observed that the Symphony No. 9 follows more or less the usual three-movement layout of a concerto, but that each movement is divided into what might be called separate chapters, marked by changes in tempo and character. In her composer-authorized note for the BIS recording of the work, Anne Weller remarks that the “abrupt changes of style and ‘time displacements’ in the first movement lend the music an unreal, fairy-tale character.”

Fairy-tales, of course have episodes of drama and violence as well as idylls of serenity, and there are some grand outbursts here, as there are later in the work, but the middle movement brings some very striking contrasts, both with the music that precedes it and within its own boundaries. Here we have more a more somber substance, evoking not the world of fairy-tales but an empty setting beyond worlds: an image, if not of Matthew Arnold’s “darkling plain,” suggesting a vast uninhabited area in which, with bleak reminders of wrenching devastation, signs of life have simply vanished, leaving an impression of an irreversible “end of time.”

The final movement brings further contrast, with both of the preceding ones. Following an extended episode punctuated by drums, metal percussion and occasional chirps from the woodwinds, there is an incredibly demanding cadenza for the soloist, and then the orchestra returns in an almost playful character to build (with an Andantino interlude to meditate on the preceding sections of the work and catch its collective breath) toward the clearly affirmative conclusion.