The Finnish line and art songs for Vallejo Festival Orchestra concert
Longtime Solano County vocal coach Connie Lisec once told The Vacaville Reporter that if a singer wants to know how to sing, “just listen to the music.”
When soprano Katherine Whyte stands at center stage Saturday for an all-Silbelus concert in the Empress Theatre in Vallejo, a program that includes seven of the composer's art songs, she says will bring to her vocal delivery an understanding of Finnish culture “and the landscape they live in.”
Speaking Sunday during a telephone interview Sunday from her home in the Riverdale area of the Bronx, Whyte, a veteran of the Metropolitan Opera and the guest soloist for the Vallejo Festival Orchestra concert, said Finnish culture is informed by “light all the time during summer and darkness in winter. You really hear that in the music (of Sibelius). You get this window into the landscape, what it's like, and what the people are like.”
Conductor Thomas Conlin, who will lead the musicians, dubbed the concert “Music from the Land of the Midnight Sun.” Besides the seven short art songs, it will feature two of Sibelius' bestknown works, “Finlandia,” a tone poem written in 1900 and considered Finland's unofficial national anthem, its chords evoking defiance of a people against Russian oppressors; and Symphony No. 2, a four-movement work composed in 1902 and notable for its rumbling clusters of tones, dark colorings, muted strings, simple folk themes, and powerful climactic surges that New Yorker music writer Alex Ross called, along with Sibelius's first symphony, “orchestral dramas of the heroic soul.”
“You definitely hear elements of that in his music,” said Whyte, whose resume boasts performances in opera, recitals, and symphonies in her native Canada, Europe, Asia, and the United States.
In one song, “Höstkväll” (Autumn Night), the poetry evokes the sun setting “and different aspects of nature, some them being angry and serene,” she said. “The whole piece seems alive. I feel like what the Scandinavian landscape is like” just a few moments into the song.
The song's narrator “feels at one with the heart of nature,” adds Whyte. “It's such a cool vision, soaring birds … wolves … and murmuring textures in the orchestra. Even as a city dweller, in a weird way, I sort of identify with it.”
Among the other songs — which Conlin says will be their Bay Area premieres — are “Våren flyktar hastig” (Spring is flying); “Svarta rosor” (Black Roses); “Säf, säf, susa” (Sigh, rushes, sigh); “Var det en dröm? (Was it a dream?); and “Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte” (The Tryst). A seventh tune, “Demanten på marssnön” (The Diamond on the March Snow), has been performed by the San Francisco Symphony, Conlin said.
To Whyte, whose creamy voice — light, bright and agile in YouTube videos, comparable to the best lyric sopranos in the business — the most endearing quality of Sibelius' vocal writing was his ability to describe “miniature worlds.”
“I call them jewels,” she said of Sibelius' nearly 100 songs, most of them set in Swedish, not Finnish. “All these pieces contain whole worlds in them in a beautiful, simplistic way. In “Spring is flying,” for example, the words remind a listener that, in Scandinavia, spring is short, summer is even shorter, and fall lasts a while. Youth goes really fast. In the winter, let us be in love and kiss.”
Before a performance, just before the curtain goes up, Whyte, like so many opera singers, warms up her vocal chords. She also admits to one preperformance habit.
“I obsessively eat Ricola cough drops,” she said.
A winner of the prestigious Alice Tully Recital Competition in 2007, Whyte, a graduate of the Juilliard School in Manhattan, made her debut in solo recital in Weill Hall (the smaller venue to one side of the main Stern Auditorium in Carnegie Hall) the following year.
And what did she sing? “Some Swedish pieces,” she said, noting Swedish is “a tonal language,” but in song, in concert, “All you're doing is singing the pitches the composer gave you.”
The Ravenna Festival near Chicago some years back, she noted, was “my first introduction to Swedish music. I've been in love with it ever since.”
Over the years, after performing in nearly countless operas across the states and the world, Whyte longs to perform a couple of roles that may be in her future: Tatiana, the innocent young woman who falls in love with a cold, aloof man in Tchaikovsky's “Eugene Onegin”; and Blanche, the main character in Poulenc's “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” the aristocrat's daughter who runs away from her home to join an order of nuns during the French Revolution.
But her stock in trade, she said, seems to be any number of countesses.
“I've done a lot of countesses,” said Whyte. “I've been in 10 productions of (Mozart's) `The Marriage of Figaro' and still want to do them. But I'll do whatever I get hired to sing.”
By midweek, she will be in rehearsal with Conlin and the orchestra. After the Saturday concert, she will return to New York to sing the vocal parts in Mahler's Symphony No. 2 with the Syracuse Symphony. In summer, Whyte, who shares a home with her husband, a history professor at the City University of New York, will sing a role in Mozart's “Il Re Pastor” (The Shepherd), which she described as “early Mozart, more florid and coloratura than his later operas. And in the fall, she will record with an organist.
Whyte will sing the Sibelius songs while translations into English are projected above the orchestra. Conlin was the first to employ this technology, in 1968 at the American premiere of Mozart's opera “Lucio Silla” with the Chamber Opera Society of Baltimore. A decade later they debuted at New York City Opera and soon “supertitles” appeared at opera productions worldwide.
Founded by Conlin in 2020, the Vallejo Festival Orchestra is the resident ensemble of the Vallejo Center for the Arts.
IF YOU GO: Vallejo Center for the Arts “Music from the Land of the Midnight Sun” (The music of Jean Sibelius) Vallejo Festival Orchestra and soprano Katherine Whyte. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Empress Theatre, 330 Virginia St., Vallejo Tickets: $29 to $97. (707) 552-2400 empresstheatre.org
ABOUT JEAN SIBELIUS Born in 1865, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius played violin and composed as a child and later studied composition with Karl Goldmark. After first concentrating on chamber music, he composed for orchestras. He became involved with the Finnish nationalism movement for independence from Russian and his sentiments yielded such works, based on Finnish folklore, as “Kullervo” (1892), the “Karelia” suite (1893), “Legends from the Kalevala” (1893), and “Finlandia” (1900).
His major achievements were his seven symphonies (1899-1924), a violin concerto (1903), and “Tapiola” (1926). His compositions were marked by sweeping but melancholy Romanticism and achieved international popularity. Sibelius was a heavy drinker and wrote nothing in his last 30 years. He died in 1957.