Lepo Sumera, a former producer at Estonian Radio, has never been indifferent to new sonorities. He is currently one of the few Estonian composers who work in the field of electro-acoustic music on a regular basis. But, from the outset of his career, he has also demonstrated a keen ear for the possibilities of the symphony orchestra.
Acoustic and electronic music together constitute the uncontroversial sound world of Sumera who confesses: "Sound has always had a magic power over me". But sound is only one of his concerns: the main concern is the work as whole and he always wants to be in control of the overall shape of it. In his output almost every kind of aleatory can be found except the aleatory of form; nor has he written any open form works.
The suitability of the symphony to Sumera's particular gifts is clearly apparent when seen in the context of his whole oeuvre. He usually develops the musical material (mostly by variational and polyphonic devices) at great length, patiently "diving" into it, to disclose its diverse and sometimes completely unexpected qualities. Every composition has its individual musical dramaturgy that dictates the form; both seem to be derived from the musical material. According to the composer, the ideas for the musical material, the timbres and form of a new work involve in his mind simultaneously. "I cannot write down the first bar before I know how the piece will end, before I know the whole thing by heart, with the timings and durations, the construction, the parts of the different instruments..." .
Sumera's symphonies are "real" symphonies, with both meditation and action in their semantics, with a variety of musical events including dramatic collisions. Nevertheless, the open, "heavy weight" dramaticism is not characteristic of Sumera whose expression is more distanced and poeticized.
Clear and precise dramatic (=psychological) lines could easily be interpreted as "real" subjects, "stories". In his commentaries, the composer only seldom gives hints as to the semantics of his works - for instance, he has said that the title of the Fourth Symphony "Serena borealis" could be associated not only with the North wind and serenity but also with sirens (Gr. seiren) - but he has never related any programmatic "stories": "I may have had a "story" in mind or I may not, but each listener must be allowed the chance to create his or her own story, quite different from mine. In actual fact, the musical "story", the motivic development, is always more important for me".
The orchestral parts are quite demanding. No musician is required to perform only long cluster tones or to count hundreds of rests (the player's response to such parts - "There is nothing to play" - also applies to much other contemporary music). Sumera is well aware that every musician would prefer a not too easy but musically attractive part: "When I write only a small part for an instrument, then the part must be special, must have particular significance in the piece. Making music should not be boring task, and you can write down clusters in such a way that it is interesting to play them".
Sumera's orchestral palette is rich in colour but timbre is treated primarily as an important dramatic factor. Each of the symphonies has its individual timbre world due largely to the soloistic treatment of a particular instrument - celesta in the First Symphony, two harps in the Second, piano and vibraphone in the Third and electric guitar in the Fourth. In the Third and Fourth Symphonies the different movements have been individualized by their instrumentation.
After the very suggestive first movement of the Fourth Symphony - Allegro, which is a stream of energically figurative striving harmonies, the silence in the second and third movements (both titled Lontano e sonore) give an impression of a single slow movement (the third is actually a variation of the second). The strings in the second and wind instruments in the third movement are accompanied here by fatality monotonous part of percussions, which are like counting time, or more precisely - underlining an illusion to timeless of time with the ticks by cabaza and maracas. However, despite the differences in shape and dramatic line, the end always fades away into silence with no pathetic conclusions or "exclamation marks". The fourth movement - Feroce, as the sound climax of the whole Symphony - is followed by the quiet and striveless harmonies of the fifth, which is actually an introverted culmination of the work and the same time a variation of the first movement, too. But now without harmonic figurations and very calmly, as titled - "Dolce e pianissimo", performed by the soloists and accompanied by the whole groups of strings.
The Fourth Symphony "Serena borealis", though closer stylistically to the Third, includes the textural types of the first two symphonies as well, and its thematic material contains a number of allusions to other works by the composer. Is it summation of the whole period? "More or less so. Certain musical processes in which I have been interested all the time but which had remained unfinished in my works, have been accomplished in it". It calls back to Sumera's "Thunder incantation" in the fourth movement and "Music for Glasgow" in the first. The very end of the Symphony is like a reminiscence of the end of the Third.
A musical interpreter does not need to prove the value of the works he likes. He can just declare it, for example as follows: "Sumera's music is immensely original but not difficult to understand". That is what Paavo Järvi, the chief conductor of the Malmö Symphony Orchestra said.