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Scandinavian Song:
Håkan Hagegård, Baritone, VocalEssence Ensemble Singers /Philip Brunelle, Conductor, Benson Great Hall, Bethel University, Saint Paul, Minnesota, 20.06. 2006 (BH)


Eskil Hemberg: Thou Who Art Over Us (1992)
Otto Olsson: Three Latin Hymns from Sex Latinska Hymner (1954)
Ola Gjeilo: Unicornis Captivatur (2001)
Edvard Grieg: Fire Salmer (“Four Psalms”) (1907)
Sven-David Sandström: Five Pictures from the Bible (2006, World premiere – Commissioned by the Minnesota Commissioning Club)

 

 

Many readers may be surprised to learn that Håkan Hagegård, the noted Swedish baritone, is making his final appearances around the globe. For his final North American concert, he appeared in an all-Scandinavian program, abetted by the renowned precision of the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers and the expert guidance of Philip Brunelle. As a mildly embarrassing aside, I finally learned how to pronounce his name correctly, which is roughly: “HO-kahn HAH-geh-gored.” (I say “roughly” because the printed page cannot accurately convey the essential Swedish brogue that should accompany the phonetics.) In the space of just a few days his name seemed to crop up everywhere – not surprising since Minneapolis and St. Paul must have one of the highest concentrations of persons of Scandinavian origin in the country.

Eskil Hemberg’s moving Thou Who Art Over Us was commissioned and premiered by VocalEssence, and it’s a gem of a piece, with text by Dag Hammarskjöld, and since Brunelle knew Hemberg personally, this reading spoke with commensurate authority. The gracefully written lines and shifting harmonies are perfect for the group’s pristine sound. Otto Olsson (1869-1964) was one of Sweden’s best-known composers in the early 20th-century, and he was especially proud of these Latin Hymns. There is a whiff of ancient chant running through these, nurtured by the baritone’s solo introduction. As Hagegård’s mellifluous voice filled the resonant Bethel University Hall, I was already wondering why he has chosen to wind down his illustrious career, but apparently he wants to end it before reaching that stage when listeners start to mutter, “Why is he still singing?” In any case, he and the ensemble made the most of these, and again one must ask why lustrous works like these remain rarities.

Born in 1978, young Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo is also a pianist and is already getting notice for his work, including winning the Gretchaninoff Memorial Prize, as well as a composition contest at the Juilliard School for his orchestral work, Identity Triad. He has also written a song cycle for Barbara Bonney. Unicornis Captivatur (An Easter Sequence) has been performed fairly often and it’s easy to see why. Gjeilo uses a medieval hymn (adroitly translated here by Christopher Brunelle, who yields a vivid, oddly contemporary-sounding text). Here are the final lines:

The hydra enters the crocodile, removes his innards and kills him, returning thence alive. For three days he slept and the lion king, roaring, woke him.

The words are set into sharper relief by Gjeilo’s mostly consonant language, showing again that many young composers have chosen to continue to explore tonality. (Having not yet heard any of his other works, I have no idea how this fits into his oeuvre.) Brunelle and his excellent singers drew a sensitive, slightly eerie sound that seemed ideally suited for the material.

Brunelle describes Grieg’s Four Psalms as “perhaps the most performed work in all of Norwegian choral music—and the most beloved.” Those who only know Grieg’s more familiar works (e.g., Peer Gynt or the Piano Concerto) might be surprised at the richness of texture in these pieces, and they make an impressive impact, starting with the modal “How Fair is Thy Face” with text by Hans Adolf Brorson (who also wrote the second psalm, the joyful “God’s Son Hath Set Me Free”). The third, “Jesus Christ Our Lord is Risen,” is almost mournful, despite the final lines describing “the chorus of angels singing o’er us,” (text by Hans Tomissön) and the final “In Heaven Above” (by Laurentius Larentii) is lilting and consoling, coming gently to rest at the end. Throughout the reading, Hagegård showed the sensitivity for which he is known, blending seamlessly with the group.

With the still-fresh memory of Brunelle and VocalEssence in Sven-David Sandström’s searing High Mass a few years ago, anticipation was high for this new piece, and it’s a pleasure to report that Sandström (who returned to Sweden the morning after the concert) can enjoy his sabbatical with the knowledge that he has another hit. Once again Sandström has given the group a deceptively profound workout, more difficult than a quick glance at the score might appear, with rhythmic complexity and his trademark high tessiture. Each of the five begins and ends quietly, creating a large-scale impression of water lapping, as if the stories were gently washing up on some shore. The soloist opens describing “Jacob’s Dream at Bethel,” which leads to dialogue with the choir, quickly escalating to a central section in which they are virtually shrieking. The second part, “The Waters at Meribah,” illustrates Moses’ striking a rock to produce water, and Hagegård was particularly moving near the end, along with the VocalEssence women who produced marvelously pure tone in the final lines.

The men begin the third part, “Daniel in the Lions’ Den,” a somber depiction of his imprisonment, survival and release, ending with the grisly deaths of Daniel’s skeptics, made all the more powerful as Hagegård softly intoned, “Before they reached the bottom of the den the lions overpowered them and broke all their bones in pieces.” And on the final “pieces,” the chorus has a disturbing, almost nasty “ch-ch” sound. The VocalEssence men had another fine moment in “The Parable of the Good Samaritan,” using a light touch, ironically to describe the man who was beaten and left for dead, and Hagegård’s tenderness in the closing moments was incredibly touching. The final section, “The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother,” is arguably the most challenging for the singers, who must navigate a fugal section with complicated syncopations cropping up like land mines. Hagegård was spellbinding in the final phrases, with the chorus in gentle, murmuring underlining.

Sandström, Hagegård, Brunelle and his wonderful group can only be congratulated for illuminating a major new addition to the a capella repertoire, and as Brunelle waved Sandström onstage, the appreciative crowd cheered and ultimately brought out the participants again and again. Subsequent readings (and let’s hope there are some) will no doubt reveal even more of this intense and haunting work, and further, I’d bet that others in the audience were now thinking, Perhaps Håkan will reconsider that so-called retirement.



Bruce Hodges



 



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)