At Berwaldhallen Again — it was Wonderful

I like to say “wonderful”. It is a word that Ernest Hemingway often used in his writings. It seems the only thing to say when one has run out of superlatives.

I attended the concert hall with Vasil again, and what we heard and observed within the acoustical marvel that houses the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra on the evening of 15 February, 2013 was:

ScreenHunter_19 Feb. 16 08.26

The piece for string orchestra by Jörgen Dafgård was an unexpected bonus, even if it was a difficult piece to understand. This is not a negative criticism. I take as a challenge all music I don’t at first understand, so I looked for an explanation. What I thought I heard and observed in the interactions of conductor and musicians was a piece with complex rhythms intertwined within a larger structure that I could not readily discern. I could perceive no melody or motif, but the conductor made me believe there was one. He was totally in charge, moving both arms in ways that indicated the different rhythms and volumes required of each section of the small orchestra. I found it interesting but admit I wished the piece were somewhat shorter.

Here are some expert words on the piece:

This work… is rhythmic in a both playful and wild way… (Source).

The Italian title Volo stands for escape, as in flight and movement or flight bow over the strings. The title also points to the volatility that characterizes the music as an art and as reflected in the stream of tones that are born and die in flight. Volo produces tones often quite short pattern that breaks up and eventually incorporated into the broader patterns or structures. The level of detail is found not least in the ever changing pace species. The metric emphases are often not where you expect them, and it will then search for the lost balance at a more senior level… (These words have been translated, on-line, from the Swedish).

Jörgen Dafgård

Jörgen Dafgård

Mr. Dafgård was on hand to receive his accolades from the audience and the orchestra after the piece ended. It felt good to see a real live composer, especially at the beginning of his career.

In that we had not expected to experience a string orchestra during the program, Vasil and I were a bit anxious about not seeing a piano on stage for the advertised Mozart concerto. And, since neither of us has Swedish well enough to understand the rather long introductions by the program announcer before each offering of the evening, we thought there might have been a change in program.

But, we relaxed as stage hands rolled a grand piano from its hiding place in the sidelines to the front of the stage, within a very narrow space between the conductor’s podium and the edge of the stage.

I love Mozart’s music, generally, but I prefer some pieces more than others. His 25th piano concerto is not one I would listen to at home, preferring those that immediately, numerically precede this one.

My opinion seems buttressed by this excerpt from a description of the piece:

Mozart completed this work on December 4, 1786… It is scored for single flute, two each of oboes, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, strings, and solo keyboard, of course. This last of Mozart’s four C major piano concertos is a work of immense structural integrity (rather than cultivated thematic charm), employing alternations between parallel major and minor keys throughout… (the emphasis is mine).

Of the three movements, I enjoyed the third the most, again buttressed by the commentary:

The first theme is tinted with melancholy, serious, almost brooding… full of a languishing grace unexpected in a concerto finale. Major-minor mood swings carry over from the first movement until, in couplet-B, intensity reaches passion… The piano, accompanied by cellos and basses alone, (produces) a sound that occurs nowhere else in Mozart, (leading to) music whose richness of texture, poignancy and passion astonish us… (Source for both quotations).

But, these words are irrelevant in the face of Mr. Anderszewski’s virtuosic playing. What a great pleasure to be present while a master performs his art. What cadenzas! What subtle precision! What faithfulness to the genius of Mozart! It was wonderful.

Piotr Anderszewski was born in Warsaw, Poland. He attended conservatories in Lyon and Strasbourg, the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music in Warsaw, and the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles. (He) first came to public attention at the Leeds Piano Competition in 1990, when he walked off stage in the semi-finals because he didn’t feel he was playing well enough…He made his London debut six months later at the Wigmore Hall.

He has given recitals at all the major venues around the world. Orchestras with whom Anderszewski has performed include the London Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Royal Concertgebouw and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In addition, Anderszewski has established a significant reputation for directing from the keyboard and has collaborated with many chamber orchestras including the Sinfonia Varsovia, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, the Camerata Salzburg, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. (Source).

Please pardon the poor quality of thee photographs taken by a hand-held iPhone4, but click on the images anyway

These poor photographs were taken by a hand-held iPhone4, but click on the images anyway

The audience applauded enthusiastically after his performance. Mr. Anderszewski was prepared to play a lovely encore which I reckoned was by J.S. Bach, possibly one of his suites for harpsichord.

During the paus (intermission), Vasil and I wondered to each other whether we were going to hear music of the “12-tone technique” which Arnold  Schoenberg is known for. Neither of us is fond of this genre, but there are certain pieces which I will listen to by Anton Webern and others who employ it. I remarked to Vasil that I very much enjoy listening to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), which seems an early piece still connected to the romantic period that preceded the modern period in which Schoenberg has been finally and  firmly placed.

As we re-entered the hall after the paus, we heard, then saw, many of the woodwind and brass sections practicing before the performance. They were not coordinated, there being no conductor present, and we thought “Uh, oh—12-tone music ahead.” But we were wrong.

But first, about the size and composition of the orchestra that assembled as we took our seats again. I counted the instruments that I could easily see from our limited vantage point:

  • Tympanists—5, the instruments including gong, bass drum, two sets of kettle drums, traps, and triangle, etc.
  • Trombones—5
  • Trumpets—4
  • Tuba (or bass horn, I’m not sure)—1
  • French horns-8
  • Harps—2
  • Oboes—5, including an oboe d’amore
  • Clarinets—5, including a bass clarinet
  • Flutes—3
  • Piccolo—1
  • Bass viols—8
  • And lots and lots of other stringed instruments of the usual kind.
A limited view of this large orchestra

A limited view of this large orchestra

[Pelléas et Mélisande is a Symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck about the forbidden, doomed love of the title characters. It was first performed in 1893.]

As the music proceeded, I felt that Shoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande seemed in the same genre as his Verklärte Nacht, although much more complex and advanced toward the modern genre.

Here is some commentary about the piece:

Only three years separate the first sketches of Arnold Schoenberg’s only symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande, Op. 5 from the string sextet Verklärte Nacht of 1899. While the musical roots of Pelleas are, by and large, the same as those of the sextet, the contrapuntal web that Schoenberg weaves in Pelleas is so dense and of such chromatic complexity that the music is transfigured into something wholly new…

The rich scoring of Pelleas reflects the same late Romantic tendency towards inflation that marks the nearly contemporaneous scoring of (Schoenberg’s) Gurrelieder: 17 woodwind players, 18 brass, more than a half dozen percussionists, and a reinforced contingent of strings and harps are all on call. Pelleas und Melisande is cast as a single large body of music, in which the four traditional symphonic movements are still vaguely discernable, but which puts more stress on the myriad structural and expressive possibilities that result from juxtaposing several levels of motivic detail than on the well-worn shadows of “arbitrary” formal outlines. (Source).

This is a monumental work, demanding the utmost from orchestra and, especially, the conductor. It seemed flawless and complete. I was not bored for one second. I was alert to everything. I was especially alert to the leadership of the conductor, as I was during the first, complex piece by Jörgen Dafgård.

Vasil remarked, before I was about to, that the conductor was outstanding.

Conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste

Conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste

Jukka-Pekka Saraste was born 1956 in Heinola, Finland. He studied piano and violin at the Lahti Conservatory. He began his musical career as violinist, playing co-principal second violin and later with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra (FRSO).

After graduating from the Conservatory in 1976, Saraste went to Sibelius-Akademy and took classes in conducting with the legendary teacher Jorma Panula. In the same class were also Esa-Pekka Salonen and Osmo Vänskä. In 1981, he won the first prize of the Scandinavian Conducting Competition.

In 1983, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Saraste co-founded the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra, which specialises in performances of contemporary music. In 2000, he also founded the Ekenäs Summer Concerts-Festival with the Finnish Chamber Orchestra, and he is currently the Artistic Advisor to both Festival and Orchestra.

In 1987 Saraste was appointed Chief Conductor of the FRSO (a position he held until 2001) and Principal Conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Edinburgh (a position he held until 1991).

Jukka-Pekka Saraste became Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 1994 which, before Saraste, never had a regular recording contract. He frequently took the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to Carnegie Hall in New York. He also brought it a contract with Finlandia Records. Saraste stepped down from his Toronto post in 2001, and has since returned to Toronto for several guest appearances.

From 2002 to 2005, Saraste served as the Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In August 2006, he became Music Director of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, and his contract has since been extended through the 2012-13 season.  The WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln has appointed Saraste as its principal conductor, effective with the 2010-2011 season.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste has conducted as a guest many renowned orchestras and ensembles, establishing himself as a leading conductor of his generation at a remarkably early age. (Source)

Vasil, next to a sculpture in Berwaldhallen

Vasil, next to a sculpture in Berwaldhallen

What I particularly liked about Mr. Saraste’s leadership is that he seemed completely attuned to the orchestra, not grandstanding to the audience as other conductors I have seen. He did not dance on his podium; he did not make hand and body movements out of proportion to the nature of the music of the moment. His baton moved sharply while his left hand encouraged each section of the orchestra when it was prominent in the music. It was completely enjoyable to watch a master at work.

There you have Vasil’s and my most “wonderful” evening.

About Ron Pavellas

Expatriate American living in Sweden with wife. Retired from employment in the USA. Currently focused on blog articles, memoirs, and creative writing.
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