I was on Irondequoit Drive in Rochester, N.Y., driving an old MG-TD in September 1957 when I heard the news of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ death at age 91 and had to pull over.

If a boyhood infatuation with the “1812 Overture” and “The Moldau” had sparked my interest in classical music, Sibelius’ “Karelia Suite” confirmed the romance. I’d go to the Portland Symphony concert (7:30 p.m. Jan. 24, Merrill Auditorium) for that suite alone.

When it’s combined with the Sibelius Violin Concerto, one of the greatest masterworks in the genre well, without hyperbole, it has to be of the must-hears of the 2012 season.

The Karelia Suite, Opus 11, was composed in 1893 for a pageant given by students in that province, from which the composer drew much of his folkish inspiration.

It begins with an intermezzo in the form of a fast march. The second, a ballade, is a sad, nostalgic song sung by a bard to entertain a medieval Swedish king, Karl Knutsson. The third, Alla Marcia, is one of the wonders of the world, brilliantly depicting (to my mind) cohorts of cavalry gathering for a battle.

Playing a recording of it (until the record wore out) by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, a close friend of Sibelius, inspired me to learn Finnish, a difficult non-Indo-European language. But the only book in the college library was a dictionary of Finnish and Hungarian translated into Latin.

The violin concerto, the only one Sibelius ever wrote, had a checkered beginning after its composition in 1904. The violinist to whom it was dedicated was to have played the premiere in Berlin, but couldn’t make it to Helsinki when the venue was changed, and the stand-in couldn’t manage the work’s unbelievable technical demands. The result was a disaster.

Sibelius then revised the work (the original was allowed to be recorded by his heirs in 1991), and the new version was premiered in 1905 by Richard Strauss conducting the Berlin Court Orchestra.

Critic Donald Tovey wrote that the final movement was a “Polonaise for polar bears,” but went on to say that, “In the easier and looser concerto forms invented by Mendelssohn and Schumann I have not met a more original, a more masterly and a more exhilarating work than the Sibelius violin concerto.”

Its virtuosity, probably a vestige of Sibelius’ early ambition to be a concert violinist, is entirely in the service of the music, which is tightly composed and developed. Like Brahms, whom he admired, Sibelius wrote the concerto as a symphony in which orchestra and soloist are equal partners. 

I have the Jascha Heifitz interpretation of the concerto, the first to be recorded, but Sibelius thought the Ida Haendel version (which I haven’t heard) was the most authentic.

One version of the premiere story has it that Sibelius didn’t finish the original score on time because he had been drinking. Of that, I can only observe, as Lincoln said when Grant was accused of drunkenness, “Find out what it is he’s drinking, and I’ll send him a barrel.” What other composers have appeared on their national currency?

I can’t resist quoting Sibelius about the man who was his favorite composer in the early years — Wagner. He told his student, Bengt de Torne: “Look at his orchestration, that mass of different instruments in unison. Wagner reminds me of his former friend and later antagonist Nietzsche, who always suggests a butler who has been created a baron.”

The PSO concert will be conducted by Christopher Warren-Green, music director of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and music director and principal conductor of the London Chamber Orchestra. The soloist will be internationally acclaimed violinist Steven Moeckel, concertmaster of the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra.

I can’t wait. The program will also include Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7. Tickets are $31 to $76, and are available via porttix.com

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician in Pownal. He can be reached at:

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