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  • Writer's pictureHelsingin Kamariorkesteri

From Close and Far Away

Updated: Jan 18, 2019

Concert at Temppeliaukio Church on May 31st 2019. Sebastian Silén, violin |

James Kahane, conductor. Buy tickets here.

Music from close and faraway lands.

The turn of the century has seen a world that seems to grow smaller by the day. The Helsinki Chamber Orchestra is a perfect example of this, with members from all around the globe. With this program, we wanted to celebrate that with a mix of composers that had travelled far from home to gain inspiration, and those that had written their scores right here in Helsinki. The program opens with the joyful Italian Symphony of Felix Mendelssohn, light hearted and happy following a trip to Italy by the youthful Mendelssohn. After this comes two very special performances of works for violin and orchestra by Finnish composers. First we hear the Variations on a Student Theme by Fredrik Pacius, composer of the Finnish national anthem. Then, potentially the world premiere of the Air Élégiaque by Robert Kajanus, the founder of the orchestra that would one day become the Helsinki Philharmonic. The program ends with Bohuslav Martinu’s great “La Jolla” Sinfonietta, written for the Musical Arts Society of sunny La Jolla, California, by a composer in exile, far from his home in Czechoslovakia. Four pieces that pay tribute to the fact that, no matter where we are, no matter how close or far from home, beautiful music is universal.


  • Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 "Italian"

  • Fredrik Pacius: Variations on the song "Studenter äro muntra bröder"

  • Robert Kajanus: Air Élégiaque

  • Bohuslav Martinu: Sinfonietta "La Jolla"

Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 "Italian"

The Symphony No. 4 in A major, commonly known as the Italian, is an orchestral symphony written by German composer Felix Mendelssohn, completed in early 1833, published posthumously as his Op. 90. The composition of the piece was started in Italy in 1832, and finished it in Berlin. It was first performed in London on March 13, 1833, and after an outsanding success, it has since remained Mendelssohn's most popular symphony. The composer gave the piece its nickname, "Italian", in reference to the colour and atmosphere of Italy, where Mendelssohn made sketches but left the work incomplete. Mendelssohn also noted that in the symphony he tried to convey his personal impressions of the art, nature, and people of Italy.

"This is Italy! And now has begun what I have always thought... to be the supreme joy in life. And I am loving it. Today was so rich that now, in the evening, I must collect myself a little, and so I am writing to you to thank you, dear parents, for having given me all this happiness."

Somewhat dissatisfied with the Symphony, Mendelssohn planned to revise it before publication; this never occurred however, and the piece was published as it stood after his death. Nevertheless, it is a more tightly-controlled, original work than his previous symphonies; the opening theme is among the most famous in all music.

Mendelssohn's signature orchestral textures are evident from the very beginning: pulsing woodwinds create a harmonic background for the simple, horn-call theme in the violins. The rapid pace and fragmentary nature of the theme keep the music from falling into predictable rendering of the 6/8 meter. Two more themes appear before the development section, in which we hear fugato treatment of the main theme, the transitional theme and new melodic material in the minor mode. The recapitulation is not literal; everything is varied. In the coda, the minor-mode theme from the development returns, but the movement closes on A major.

Ignaz Moscheles contended that the main theme of the second movement, an Andante con moto in D minor, contains the melody of a Czech pilgrim song; others claim it is a rendition of Karl Friedrich Zelter's "Es war ein König in Thule." Cast in D minor, the elegant movement has two major sections arranged in an ABAA' pattern, the contrasting B section emphasizing A major. The closing, quiet, pizzicato bass notes convey a sense of resignation.

The third movement, Con moto moderato, is a fairly conventional minuet and trio in A major, possibly inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's humorous poem, Lilis Park. In the coda, the melody of the trio section tries, unsuccessfully, to assert itself over that of the minuet.

Mendelssohn entitled the Finale, "Saltarello," which is a lively Neopolitan dance featuring hopping and jumping; the fast main theme conveys the leaping aspect of the dance. The movement's high point is the central development, in which Mendelssohn creates a continuos crescendo from pianissimo to fortissimo. Near the close we hear a reference to the main theme of the first movement, but on A minor, the key in which the movement ends.

Fredrik Pacius: Variations on the song "Studenter äro muntra bröder"

The German-born composer and violinist Fredrik Pacius (1809-1891) moved to Finland in 1834 as he took on a post as a music teacher at Helsinki University. Pacius made himself a vital part of the music life in Helsinki by conducting numerous ambitious orchestral concerts, solo- and chamber music concerts, and by organising choir activities. Choir singing became an effective entry point for young students with limited musical experiences to become involved in the music life in the capital. For this reason, it is very fitting that the first work for violin and orchestra by Pacius from 1842 is based on a student song that he himself had written a few years earlier.

The composition Variations on a Student Song “Studenter äro muntra bröder” is a 15 minute virtuoso piece for violin and orchestra. The work reminds stylistically of virtuoso works for violin by the relatively forgotten German composers Joseph Mayseder and Louis Spohr, whose music Pacius performed regularly in his concerts. This humoristic piece offers an interesting picture of Pacius, who would later be called “the Father of Finnish music”, both as a person and as a violinist.

Robert Kajanus: Air Élégiaque

Through his activities as a composer and conductor of the Helsinki Orchestral Society (today Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra), Robert Kajanus became as central to the Finnish music life as Pacius had been before him. Robert Kajanus also got the post as music teacher at the Helsinki University after Pacius successor, Richard Faltin, retired. It is worth noting that Kajanus was seen as Finland’s most promising composer before Sibelius had his breakthrough.

Robert Kajanus piece Air Élégiaque is a lyrical work which shows hints of Wagnerian influences. What makes this work interesting in the context of this concert is that it is unsure if the work has ever been performed in its original version, for violin and orchestra. Matti Vainio mentions, in his detailed Kajanus-biography, that he has found no information confirming that the work has ever been performed. It could possibly have been played during Helsinki Orchestral Society’s concerts, but this performance is most likely the first in modern times.

Bohuslav Martinu: Sinfonietta "La Jolla"

Bohuslav Martinu's Sinfonietta "La Jolla", written in 1950 on a commission from the Musical Arts Society of La Jolla, California, is a 20-minute work for small orchestra in Martinu's preferred three-movement layout (Poco allegro; Largo -- andante moderato; Allegro). A virtual trademark of Martinu's is the presence of an active and prominent piano part, somewhere between being an obbligato and a concertante part in importance.

La Jolla is one of the most peaceful and charming compositions of the Czech composer. He had long been exiled from his native land: First, he had settled in Paris as a practically penniless musician in 1923, because it was a better place than Prague for a modernist young composer. Then, in 1938, he had been prevented from returning home for good by the infamous Munich Agreement, which gave Hitler's Germany a free hand in occupying Czechoslovakia. In 1941, he fled Europe altogether, just steps ahead of the German army advancing on Paris, and moved to America. After the War he had been able to return to Europe, and felt spiritually at home, particularly after visiting Prague in 1946. In 1948 the establishment of a Soviet-backed Communist government precluded his returning to live. Even so, his works after his trip tend to have a more serene, even spiritual quality, especially when compared with the dynamic, restless neoclassical works the preceded the War.

The Sinfonietta has elements of both Martinu's pre-war and post-war styles. Like the pre-war works, it is neoclassical in style, one of the last such works in his catalog. But unlike the neoclassical works of the 1930s, it does not make its point with hard driving rhythms. The work uses ostinatos and syncopated melodies, particularly in the first movement, but now these touches are applied lightly and contribute to the good mood of the music: Martinu was always an admirer of Franz Joseph Haydn, an admiration that had grown by this period. He emulated Haydn's ability to "place himself at the service of music" and was readily able to accept the Musical Arts Society's request that the work they commissioned be a tuneful and approachable orchestral work.

Accordingly the first movement is fast, but still with a relaxed tempo, It recalls Martinu's countryman Dvorak in the way more rhythmic material alternaties with very lyrical themes. The slow movement is introspective with a main theme that is highly chromatic and has a yearning quality. The finale is an admirable example of economy of melody, with a vivacious charm that is hard to resist.

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