If classical music has declined in cultural influence, nobody has told the concert hall. The tradition of Beethoven and Verdi and Shostakovich is set to continue at the Kennedy Center on May 22nd, when the Choral Arts Society of Washington and the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra present the world premiere of Seven Songs for Planet Earth by Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas.
Now, it seems, more than ever, it is impossible to consider the natural world without thought to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, or the ongoing nuclear catastrophe and tragic loss of life in Japan. Seven Songs for Planet Earth is a reflection on nature and its fragility, and is a call to action.
"Any work of art," says Mr. Kortekangas, "whether it's realistic, abstract, or even conceptual, is an act in itself, more than doing nothing, and can serve as an example, can stir the listeners' imagination, evoke emotions."
Though the piece was composed before the recent ecological devastations, Mr. Kortekangas takes a much larger view of humanity's relationship with nature. "I've been interested in environmental issues for decades. So whatever's happened this or last year doesn't have a direct connection to what I've written. New problems unfortunately arise. It's inevitable. Disasters keep getting bigger, I'm afraid."
He looks to his home country. "At present, Finnish organizations and authorities are working hard to save the Baltic Sea, which got in a bad shape in only a few decades." He adds with nostalgia, "Now, this interests me a lot because I've spent my summers by the Baltic Sea since childhood, and at present live there half of the year."
Norman Scribner, the distinguished Artistic Director of the Choral Arts Society of Washington, says, "Our mantra is two-fold: celebrating the past and embracing the future. It's a permanent philosophical commitment to the ongoing presence of classical music in our lives, and why we carry forth the tradition of this category of music. Classical music addresses the deeper spiritual values of our existence and strives to encapsulate our culture in the highest possible way."
In choosing a theme for the commission, Mr. Scribner says, "We never seriously contemplated anything other than something that celebrates our Earthly home. It's a subject that's absolutely universal and unifying. There are many political views about the Earth, but no one disputes the fact that in some way, shape, or form we have to take care of our home."
The concert is a work in seven movements. Symphonic choruses are based on texts, and four of the movements are poems by the poet Wendell Berry, who was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2010. According Mr. Scribner, the poetry of Mr. Berry "forms the heart and soul of the piece."
The work is ambitious, and Mr. Kortekangas finds inspiration in a fellow Finn composer. "The music of Jean Sibelius was really a key factor in [Finland's] struggle for independence in the early 1900's. He didn't set out to be a national composer and hero, but as a sensitive person he reacted to what was happening and foresaw and impacted what was going to happen." Mr. Kortekangas quotes Mr. Berry, saying, "[Sibelius] wrote the pieces that gave the rest of the Finns 'the feelings for their obligations'."