Disappointing Finnish

Novel or short story? Pencil or brush? Of the artist’s many challenges, perhaps most vital is identifying the medium that best brings out his talents.

Jean Sibelius saw himself as a “tone painter and poet” whose best-known works are short orchestral pieces typically based on literary sources or his Finnish homeland.

The composer did write seven symphonies, however, and as the L.A. Philharmonic revealed Saturday at Disney Hall, the symphony was not Sibelius’ ideal medium.

The concert, part of the season’s “Sibelius Unbound” series, opened with the tone poem “Pohjola’s Daughter,” a staple on any Sibelius greatest-hits CD.

Like seeing a longtime friend and feeling a sudden and surprising attraction, this familiar and pleasant-enough piece, heard live by an energized orchestra with Disney Hall’s wonderful accoustics, was transfixing. Its folk melodies and cool Scandinavian textures revealed the composer’s neglect over the past 50 years as a gross injustice. A beautiful piece beautifully played, its motifs swirled in the mind long after the concert ended.

What a disappointment then when the Phil next began the instantly forgettable “Symphony No. 3,” which presented the lonstanding counter-argument against the composer, which no doubt reached its apex in 1955 when Rene Leibowitz penned a pamphlet entitled “Sibelius: The Worst Composer in the World.”

For reasons that can only be explained by a large contingent of Finnish-Americans in the audience, the symphony received a partial standing ovation.

Following intermission, the argument against Sibelius was further fortified by “Symphony No. 1,” a piece of breathtaking mediocrity. Critics have accused Sibelius of being incompetent, a word that came to mind during each of the symphony’s four tedious movements. Clumsy and disjointed, with endless call-and-response passages of Advil-sales-spike-inducing pomposity, it’s easy to understand why the composer banned the symphony’s performance during his lifetime.

Even the inspiration of conductor and fellow Finn Esa-Pekka Salonen, who studied at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, could not redeem this marginal piece of music.

The concert was recorded for download at iTunes. Hearing “Pohjola’s Daughter” live was priceless, but “Symphony No. 1″ isn’t worth 99 cents.

The L.A. Philharmonic’s “Sibelius Unbound” series continues Thursday and Friday with Symphonies No. 5 and 6.

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