Probably we all have such annoying experience: certain tunes, words, impressions or feelings insist on staying in our minds; they keep bothering us at most inconvenient moments; they refuse to go away.

On the other hand, some inner thoughts and deep feelings would hit us in a most unexpected fashion with the strongest velocity, then disappear into thin air: we know they are still at the bottom of our heart, but we could not easily recall them. On a conscious level, they seem to have never been here.

To psychologically solve the above two problems, we need one thing: context. With context, we may put our obsessive-compulsive minds to rest. And with context, we may recall the deepest pleasure – or enlightenment – we once had.

In music, symphony is probably the ultimate form to give musical ideas a context. Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Sibelius Festival, in which the composer’s all seven symphonies were played in a chronological order in the past two weeks, revealed this superb symphonic contextualist to me.

To those who are previously only familiar with the composer’s tone poems such as Finlandia or Karelia Suite, the thrills those symphonies provide could be an altogether different kind.  The climaxes often emerge from nowhere and sometimes go nowhere. The point, however, is not the climaxes themselves, but multitudes of prolonged impetuses. People talk about Sibelius’ “Nordic color”, but what matters is probably his “Nordic structure”, or sometimes “anti-structure”. The word “Nordic” could be misleading too, for there is indeed something “southern” in his music, by which I mean an aesthetic affinity with the bel canto tradition of Italian opera.

In a 2008 article(and the accompanied video), Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times used the phrase “anti-catchy” to explain bel canto melodic writing in music which is best known in Bellini’s operas: bel canto are melodies that are exquisitely beautiful, deeply touching, but not easy to remember. They are “long stretches of lyrically enhanced recitative and extended spans of arioso, a halfway station between full-out melody and conversational recitative.”

Bel canto tradition gradually expired when the 19th-century Romanticism flourished during which full-blooded and forceful melodies were required. By the time of Sibelius, however, the world and music were entering contemporaneity, or modernism if you like. Idealism was giving way to deadpan. Music, as always, lagged behind other forms of expression in “trend”, holding on to Romanticism in one way or another: Mahler, Richard Strauss, as well as Sibelius. But Sibelius reinvigorated Romanticism by reviving older aesthetics. He dissolved and re-seeded “catchy” melodies in elaborate structure, thus achieved a strange blend of sensuality and medivial seriousness. He was said to have followed the steps of Russian nationalist composers, but he was a bit smarter: instead of using actual folk melodies to create his “Finlandness”, he used the “feel” or shadow of folk melodies.

This contextualist requires an ultimate structualist to conduct his music. Probably no one is better than the Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard who was at the same time commanding and sensitive.  The musicians of Toronto Symphony Orchestra totally responded to him. Indeed, TSO sounded like Berliner Philharmoniker under his baton. Attending his concerts, you will know that music is not only to be listened to, but also to be looked at.

The only piece I missed in those concerts was no other than Finlandia (due to lateness). Here is the remedy:

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