On January 1, 2015, the Danish National Chamber Orchestra will shut down. Its last concert is scheduled for November 21.
The Danish government’s cultural arm is making a series of budget cuts and priority changes, and over the summer chose to shut down the chamber orchestra, which employs 42 musicians. Conductor Ádám Fischer, after leading a complete recording series of the Haydn symphonies, came to Denmark and advocated a fleet, exciting, edgy view of classical-era repertoire.
In this way, the Danish National Chamber Orchestra were pioneers. Along with Thomas Dausgaard’s Swedish Chamber Orchestra, and Charles Mackerras’s Scottish Chamber Orchestra, they rewrote our expectations for fifty years of music: that Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert can be performed by a compromise ensemble. Modern instruments, not period, with modern strings, bows, reeds, and techniques. But the smaller orchestras yielded greater clarity, sharpness, and precision. Hard-stick timpani led an aggressive attack. Fast tempos woke up the silly old idea that Mozart is for softies. These conductors’ approaches, in this music, were sort of the anti-Marriner, or anti-Karajan: you shouldn’t feel relaxed by Mozart. You shouldn’t feel like you’re in church. You should feel awakened. Invigorated. Excited.
I’ve written about
that excellent Mozart cycle before, as has my colleague Michael Greenhalgh
). But the Danish National Chamber Orchestra did a great deal more. They advocated music by living composers like Anders Koppel and Per Nørgård. Under another name, the Danish Radio Sinfonietta, they recorded a major milestone series of great works by Vagn Holmboe
Chamber concertos v1
Chamber concertos v2
Concertos & Chamber works
). Most recently, in an attempt to drum up publicity for their demise, the players each consumed, whole, “the world’s hottest chili peppers” and then attempted to perform music. (The players were given a mixture of ghost chilis, Carolina Reapers, and Trinidad moruga scorpion peppers.) The
resulting YouTube video
is a marvel: watch as the woodwind and brass players, especially, wince in agony, sweat, cry—and play right through it.
People often say closings like this orchestra’s are “tragic”. That’s not true: this was not a tragedy but a decision. A frustrating, misguided, disappointing decision. A sign that, for all the peril American orchestras face because of their reliance on private financing, European orchestras may not be much safer depending on the public. La Petite Bande recently faced extinction too, and probably will face extinction again. No amount of artistic heritage can protect today’s orchestras from being deemed liabilities.
If it is any consolation, the Danish National Chamber Orchestra have one last trick up their sleeves. This April they will release, on Dacapo and under Ádám Fischer, a complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies. Recordings have been taking place since 2012. I hope that the live Ninth on November 21, the orchestra’s last performance before its dissolution, will be issued in the box set. A live recording of the final concert would be a fitting, moving tribute to over 75 years of service.