Percussion Master Colin Currie

Program Notes

FRI APR 12, 8 pm | SAT APR 13, 8 pm

JOHN STORGÅRDS conductor | COLIN CURRIE percussion

NIELSEN (1865-1931)

Helios Overture, Op. 17

KALEVI AHO (b.1949)

Sieidi, Concerto for Solo Percussion and Orchestra


SIBELIUS (1865–1957)

Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82

  • Molto moderato—Allegro moderato—Presto
  • Andante mosso, quasi allegretto
  • Allegro molto—Misterioso

IT IS A DISTINCT PLEASURE to welcome back beloved guest conductor John Storgårds to the podium in this beautiful program of Nordic composers and influences. We begin with Carl Nielsen’s mesmerizing Helios Overture, which depicts the stunning beauty of the sun’s journey through the sky. Nielsen was inspired to write this music during a trip to Greece and by stories of the sun god, Helios; the piece paints a vibrant yet tranquil scene. Second on tonight’s program is a Concerto for Solo Percussion and Orchestra titled Sieidi, which comes from a Finnish language, Sami, and denotes a sacred site. We are thrilled to have the great Colin Currie perform this magical piece for the first time at the CSO. Finally, we present Symphony No. 5 by the wonderful Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. This remarkable work was commissioned by the government of Finland to celebrate the composer’s 50th birthday. It took many versions before arriving in its final, radiant form, which we present to you this evening.


Carl Nielsen photo for program notes

Carl Nielsen

Born: June 9, 1865, Sortelung, on the Danish Island of Funen (Fyn)
Died: October 3, 193, Copenhagen

Known for:

  • Suite for Strings (1888)
  • Wind Quintet (1922)
  • Maskarade (1906)

Helios Overture, Op. 17

  • Work composed: 1903 in Athens
  • Premiere: October 8, 1903, Copenhagen, Johan Svendsen conducting
    Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings
  • CSO notable performances: One previous subscription weekend: October 1989, David Loebel conducting
  • Duration: approx. 12 minutes

At the age of 38, Carl Nielsen—Denmark’s greatest classical composer—had already written two symphonies and an opera that had been performed successfully in Copenhagen. Yet he had not yet been able to quit his “day job” in the second violin section of the Royal Danish Orchestra, even after receiving a modest state pension to support his work as a composer. In 1903 he obtained a leave from the orchestra, to accompany his wife, the sculptor Anne-Marie Carl-Nielsen, née Brodersen, to Greece. She had received a grant to study ancient Greek art, and the couple settled in Athens, where Nielsen, too, admired the antiquities and immersed himself in ancient mythology. The figure of Helios, the sun god, captured his imagination in particular, and he composed a concert overture in which a full day, from sunrise to sunset, is represented in the form of a magnificent arch beginning and ending with a quiet contemplation of nature in the sustained notes of the French horns, and with a great deal of bustling activity in between.

KEYNOTE. Out of the quiet opening, a sinuous string melody emerges; it grows steadily in volume and rises in register until the blazing sound of the trumpets announces bright daylight. The violins introduce a glorious new theme in a new key and a faster tempo, continued by the cellos, projecting feelings of joy at the sight of the midday splendor. Then, unexpectedly, a fugue in Presto tempo appears, perhaps symbolizing the “fire-darting steeds” (as the poet Pindar called them) who drew Helios’s golden chariot across the sky. The hectic motion gradually subsides and the meditative opening returns to signal the end of the day and the disappearance of the sun behind the horizon.

—Peter Laki


Kalevi Aho

Born: March 9, 1949, Forssa, Finland


  • 17 symphonies
  • 31 concertos
  • 5 operas

Sieidi, Concerto for Solo Percussion and Orchestra

  • Work composed: 2010–2011, on commission from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Luosto Classic Festival in Finland and the Gothenburg Symphony
  • Premiere: April 18, 2012, London’s Royal Festival Hall, Osmo Vänskä conducting the London Philharmonic; Colin Currie, percussion
  • Instrumentation: solo percussion, 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, castanets, crash cymbals, 6 hand bells, suspended cymbals, tambourine, triangle, strings
  • CSO notable performances: These performances are the CSO premiere of Sieidi.
  • Duration: approx. 36 minutes

Finnish composer Kalevi Aho, who turned 70 on March 9, 2019 has written 16 symphonies and a concerto for almost every instrument in the orchestra, in addition to several operas and a great deal of chamber and vocal music. Almost all of his works have been recorded on the BIS label and distributed worldwide, so that his music has reached music lovers all over the world. From his extremely large and varied catalogue, one should note in particular the Insect Symphony (No. 7, 1988), derived from the opera Insect Life (1985–87), and Chinese Songs for soprano and orchestra (1997). Also known as a passionate writer about current social issues, Kalevi Aho is a prominent voice in the cultural life of his country.

The percussion concerto Sieidi, which has become one of Aho’s most-performed works, was written for virtuoso percussionist Colin Currie. It was co-commissioned by a music festival in remote Luosto, Finland, almost 600 miles to the north of Helsinki. Luosto is located in a region known as Lapland, which has long been inhabited by the Sami people (the term Lapp, by which this group was long known, is considered derogatory and no longer used). The Sami have their own ancient culture and religion, worshipping around large boulders, high in the mountains or on the seashore. These sacred sites are called sieidi in the Sami language and they provided the initial inspiration for Aho’s concerto. Drums played a very important role in the ancient shamanic rituals of the Sami; their large, hand-held instruments had various magic symbols painted on their membranes. It was, therefore, a natural choice for Aho to write a percussion concerto to honor the Sami.

The work features the members of the orchestral percussion section, who are almost as important as the main soloist. Three percussionists, each with his or her special battery of instruments, are set up on the left, on the right, and in the back of the stage, respectively. They interact with the protagonist, who is placed front and center, in a multiplicity of ways.

KEYNOTE. The concerto, just over half an hour long, is in a single movement, consisting of about a dozen different sections (the lines between sections are not always easy to draw). In general, each new section is marked by the soloist’s switch to a new instrument or instruments in his vast array of drums, gongs and mallets.

The work begins with a vigorous solo on the djembé, a drum of West African origin that seems to make a solemn proclamation, punctuated by two large bass drums on either side of the stage. After a passionate response from the orchestra, the soloist re-enters on the darabuka, a Middle Eastern drum with a slightly lighter sound. Following the second response, the soloist moves to his set of five tom-tom drums, which produce a whole range of different sounds from high to low. This carefully planned succession of membranophones creates a gradual intensification of the musical textures and an increase in excitement, leading into a passage where a thundering timpani solo from the orchestral player in the back helps bring this introductory section to its end.

As a total contrast, the soloist moves to the marimba (a pitched mallet instrument!), providing a vigorous accompaniment to a dreamy English-horn solo, continued by the oboe and other woodwinds. This more introspective section builds up to its own climax. Then the scene darkens again as the timpani in the back begins an dramatic dialog with the soloist, now on wood blocks and temple blocks, highlighting the third major family of percussion instruments—the idiophones—after the mallets and drums. After an ominous transition section, with full orchestra complete with menacing bass drums, the orchestra falls silent and the soloist moves to yet another instrument, the vibraphone, to play a cadenza filled with the magical sounds of the metallic bars. 

When the orchestra re-enters, the reverie continues with a soulful saxophone solo, continued by the clarinets. The lyrical atmosphere is rudely disrupted by a new orchestral explosion that gives rise to another cadenza, partially improvised by the soloist on the large tam-tam. Then, in a more peaceful new section introduced by two solo violins, the melodic phrases of the English horn and saxophone are set against the lively rhythms of the soloist, who now plays on wood blocks and temple blocks. This section, which features many prominent woodwind solos, has a distinctly Middle Eastern sound to it, and takes on the character of a lively dance. Another fiendishly virtuosic marimba passage is followed by the most joyful episode of the concerto, with a complex interplay between the soloist (playing mostly on the tom-toms) and the orchestra. The music quiets down at the end as the soloist returns to the two drums he played at the beginning, first the darabuka (against sinuous woodwind and brass solos), and then the initial djembé, which gets softer and softer. The last sounds we hear are the orchestral percussionists shaking their South American rainsticks, in imitation of the sounds of nature heard in the vast national park that had inspired the piece and where one of its first performances took place.

—Peter Laki

Jean Sibelius

Born: December 8, 1865, Hämeenlinna, Finland
Died: September 20, 1957, Järvenpää, Finland

Known for:

  • Findlandia (1899)
  • Karella Suite (1893)
  • Kullervo (1892)

Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82

  • Work composed: 1912–1919
  • Premiere: 1915 version: December 8, 1915, Robert Kajanus conducting; final 1919 version: November 1919, Jean Sibelius conducting
  • Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings
  • CSO notable performances: 10 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: October 1932, Eugene Goossens conducting | Most recent: November 2010, Thomas Dausgaard conducting | The CSO also performed this work at Carnegie Hall in January 2005 and in Madrid and Barcelona on its 2004 European tour, Paavo Järvi conducting.
  • Duration: approx. 30 minutes

Although its positive tone may imply otherwise, the Fifth Symphony gave Sibelius more trouble than any other work. The first version, which took three years to complete, displeased him. He made extensive revisions after the premiere in late 1915. A second version was performed in 1916, but still the composer was not satisfied. He planned to have the work ready for a 1917 performance, but World War I and then civil war in Finland kept him from working on it. As these wars cut off Sibelius’s income from his German publisher, he had to compose small piano pieces and songs in order to earn a living. He returned to the Fifth after hostilities ended. The work found its final form in 1919.

It is a total contrast to the inner, nebulous Fourth Symphony. With the Fifth, Sibelius went back to the energetic world of the Second, but with noticeably greater sophistication. Leaving behind the Fourth’s experiments with vague tonality, he cast the diatonic Fifth unambiguously in E-flat major.

KEYNOTE. Sibelius was intrigued by the concept of a movement. To what extent is a movement an independent piece, and to what extent is it an integral part of a larger whole? The manner in which the Second Symphony’s third movement melts into its finale is an early indication of Sibelius’s concern with this question. His casting of the Seventh Symphony in one continuous movement is his final solution. In the Fifth, each of the two outer movements acts like two movements combined into one. The first movement was, in fact, two separate movements in the symphony’s first version. In its final form, the first movement begins with an expansive section that is far too long, too involved, and too stable to be an introduction. Just as it approaches an expected recapitulation, it gives way to a scherzo. This new section is almost a waltz, except for rhythmic irregularities in the accompaniment. The two sections are closely integrated, with one beat of the first part’s 12/8 becoming the scherzo’s 3/4 measure. The result is a brightening of mood without a literal tempo change.

The finale also functions as two movements, but they interpenetrate one another more than in the first movement. The perpetual motion that begins the finale sounds like a second scherzo, in a fast 2/4 time. This music gives way to a slower passage in which the measures are consistently grouped in threes. This grouping makes the music sound now like a slow 3/2, even though, as in the first movement, the actual tempo has not changed. The scherzo returns, followed by a peroration in the slower tempo, now finally written in 3/2.

Between these two double movements lies the andante, an intermezzo that is essentially a set of variations on a simple theme.

The ending of the symphony is unusual. The slower idea of the finale takes over, gradually building in sound and intensity. The tension mounts to the breaking point, and then the music does just that: it breaks. A movement that has been characterized by continuous sound, particularly during the final build, at last admits silence. Sustained sound has become almost excessive. Several isolated, full, short chords punctuate the silence, as this most extraordinary of symphonies ends in a most extraordinary manner.

—Jonathan D. Kramer