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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Tan Dun and Grieg: Gert François (percussion)  Dala Sinfonietta, Bjarte Engeset, conductor, at the Municipal Theatre in Falun, Sweden, 6.9.2007 (GF)


Dala Sinfonietta is an orchestra of 27 permanent members – at this concert it was amended with a good handful of extras – domiciled in Falun, about 225 kilometres north-west of Stockholm but commissioned to play in every district in the province of Dalecarlia. This means that the orchestra is probably the most widely travelled ensemble in Sweden. From this autumn and for a period of three years the internationally renowned Norwegian conductor Bjarte Engeset is their artistic leader and chief conductor and the inhabitants in Dalecarlia can look forward to many fascinating encounters with music and musicians with a message. “In touch with music” is his motto, something that is developed further in the interview I made with him the day before this concert. (To be published shortly. Ed)

Bjarte Engeset has met the orchestra before as guest – I remember a fresh reading of Stenhammar’s Serenad, one of the gems in the late romantic Swedish orchestral repertoire – but this was his first concert as head of the orchestra and as a calling card, the choice of music is highly interesting and perspective building.

The Chinese-American composer Tan Dun (b. 1957) is one of the most thrilling creators of music today and he is fascinated by the possibilities to amend the orchestral pallet with unconventional instrumental sounds, with unconventional or new instruments and also with sounds that are not by design musical but rather inherent in life itself. The Concert for Water Percussion, performed in Falun, was a commission from the New York Philharmonic, who premiered it in 1999 under Kurt Masur. The sounds of water play a central role – without water no life – and the soloist and his two assistants are positioned at the front of the stage with transparent water bowls, illuminated from below, and with sundry conventional and – mostly – unconventional instruments or sound-sources. The work is just as much a visual as an auditory experience and not only the magic lighting but also the movements and gestures of the players are suggestive. Especially the main soloist, Belgian Gert François, who has performed the work with the composer, carried through a fully choreographed act. It is a long work with a prelude and three movements, separated by solo cadenzas by the percussionists and the composition is filled with humour, beauty, horror, surprises and sometimes “conventional” music with rhythms, harmonies and melodies deeply influenced by Chinese traditional music. The musicians of the orchestra are sometimes required to use their instruments rather waywardly: the wind players blew or hummed in their mouthpieces, the French horns were employed as percussion instruments. And all through the work the water flowed, splashed, gushed. After the spectacular finale the audience was enthralled and Gert François was wet. Tan Dun’s instructions in the score that a towel needs to be at hand, was definitely not superfluous. I don’t think a sound recording of this music would be a bestseller but a DVD with someone in the mould of Brian Large as video director would.

The leap from Tan Dun’s modernism to Edvard Grieg’s only symphony, written when he was barely 20, seems long indeed but on closer scrutiny there are parallels, however wide apart. Both composers are deeply rooted in the folk music of their native countries, for both the forces of nature play an important part and both are/were in their own ways revolutionaries. With a distance in time of close to 150 years Grieg’s modernism seems modest and it is true that he was overshadowed by roughly contemporaries like Wagner and Debussy. On the other hand Tab Dun can appear extremely modern to ears accustomed to mainstream classical music but set against composers like Wolfgang Riehm and Kaija Saariaho he is only a moderate forerunner. What is his niche is the juxtaposition and amalgamation of his Asian tradition with Western compositional principles. Grieg in his time was in the same position: Norwegian, and indeed Nordic, art music was deeply indebted to the central European tradition, mainly Austro-German – Grieg had his training in Leipzig but he also had a living interest in Norwegian folk music. To the majority of the music loving public his music is associated to Norwegian fjords, mountains and rural life. The modernism in Grieg’s music lies in a sublime widening of the harmonic language and as good example as any of this is his piano piece Klokkeklang (Bell Ringing – from Lyric Pieces, Op. 54 No. 6), where the descending and rising fifths create a fully developed impressionist landscape 20 years before Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie.

None of this – or rather little – is to be found in the Symphony in C minor. It is to the greater part firmly rooted in the late classicism of Beethoven and the early romanticism of Schumann and Mendelssohn. Just as Brahms modelled his first symphony on Beethoven, so Grieg has the fifth as his starting point – yes, even more than that. It’s in the same key, the same orchestral forces, the structure is similar and – as with Brahms – the same struggle.

Parts of the symphony were performed a number of times; Grieg even conducted it a couple of times, but it was never heard complete and within a couple of years he withdrew the work, writing on the cover of the manuscript “must never be performed”. Grieg was very self-critical and as yet uncertain of his abilities and probably it was after hearing the slightly older Johan Svendsen’s first symphony in 1867 – possibly the greatest Norwegian symphony – that he felt inferior and took this drastic step. It then lay unperformed until 1980. In the interview Bjarte Engeset also explains why he thinks it is justified to perform the work in spite of Grieg’s ban.

I hadn’t heard the symphony before and “The first meeting” (op. 21, No 1) was a pleasant one. Even a half deaf person can hear Beethoven’s presence but he is more or less present in so many other symphonies that have survived without being choked by the Titan. This is fresh youthful music that develops with considerable power and for a first – and in this case unfortunately only – essay in the symphonic genre it is impressive indeed. In the second movement, Adagio espressivo one might hear something of a Nordic tone, but this is probably wishful thinking. The third movement however, is something different: a cheerful dance with a distinct Norwegian flavour. Is it a springar? No, not quite, but not far from it and the theme of the trio section, Bjarte Engeset told me after the concert, is a folk-tune “Astri, min Astri”. The finale is constantly thrilling and has the orchestra sitting on the edge of their chairs. With hindsight it is a shame that this vigorous music was a Sleeping Beauty for well over a century. It couldn’t have been more idiomatically performed. Bjarte Engeset is one of the authorities on Grieg – he is busy recording the complete orchestral works for Naxos and this symphony is available on a disc released a few months ago (Naxos 8.557991) – and the Dala Sinfonietta were obviously inspired by their new chief conductor. As a tribute to him the string section, led by Anders Jakobsson, played the Sarabande from Grieg’s Holberg Suite.

So much in the reports from Swedish music life is focused on the big cities – Stockholm and Gothenburg in the main – and therefore it is important to show that there are seething musical activities on a very high level also in the provinces. The Theatre was almost packed, which is impressive considering that the programme consisted of a “difficult” modern work and a symphony hardly anyone had heard about. This is as good a sign as any that there is a potential in art music even in these days when certain cultural grave-diggers try to declare it dead.


Göran Forsling

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Contributors: Marc Bridle, 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, John Leeman, Sue Loder,Jean Martin, 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, Raymond Walker, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)

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