One of the most recent performances of the Symphony No. 7 was directed by Damian Iorio and the NorrlandsOperan orchestra in Umeå. Damian has very kindly agreed to share his thoughts with us on that performance. Thank you Damian, and please program more Pettersson in the future!
Around 10 years ago I was having dinner with a Swedish friend who was living in St Petersburg, Russia, and who is an avid music lover. We were discussing Scandinavian music and he told me about a Swedish composer who deserved to be performed more. From his vast record collection he pulled out a recording of Pettersson’s string concerti and I was immediately struck by the intensity and emotion of the music. I still remember that evening very clearly.
My first opportunity to conduct his music arose only recently, when I was asked by Norrlands Opera in Sweden to conduct the 7th Symphony. I didn’t hesitate to say yes! As well as the Pettersson we performed the world premiere of a Clarinet Concerto by the Swedish composer Katarina Leyman, and Shostakovich’s Festive Overture. This was a challenging programme for both musicians and public and I have a lot of respect for Norrlands Opera for such imaginative programming. I also felt very honoured to present a programme consisting of two major Swedish works.
Pettersson’s music is very challenging. It is full of extremes and the 7th Symphony creates great demands on our psychological and emotional state. Technically the symphony veers from simple repetitive figures to extremely complicated and difficult writing which pushes the orchestra to its limits. Great technical control is needed in order to be able to freely express what is written on the paper for the ears of the public, and that is not so easy with music of such extremes. Another difficulty is the length of the piece which is written in one long movement of over 40 minutes, so there is nowhere in the symphony where you can take a step back and gather yourself. Concentration has to be 100% from the first to last note and both conductor and orchestra have to pace themselves to be able to give everything from the first to the last bar.
Working with Norrlands Opera Symphony Orchestra was a real pleasure. They approached the music with great seriousness and care, and were patient and concentrated during the rehearsals. The symphony is not an easy piece to rehearse but they always gave everything, and already from the first day I felt that we would be able to work in depth and explore the music together, and we achieved that. I had been told that the orchestra had played the symphony some years earlier for a ballet (!), but many of the musicians were playing it for the first time and therefore we were discovering the music together.
The most important aspect we worked on was creating the right sound world. A lot of the music is very dark and requires a certain quality and weight of sound to express this. With perseverance we found the right colours which then allowed us to make a big contrast in the brighter sections. It is important to express each section of the symphony clearly so that its structure and depth are presented with logic and clarity, and to guide the public so that they feel transported into the different worlds to which the music, and to which Pettersson, is taking us. You can feel his pain, his questioning of life, of existence, as well as the moments of calm and reflection, and we must allow all these emotions to come through while also taking care of the finer details which add to the general canvas.
The whole concert was very demanding for everyone. The clarinet concerto required a lot of work and concentration and the first half was very successful. When we started the Pettersson I could feel that it was going to be special. The audience was very attentive and concentrated, and was so quiet that we were able to hold the tension in the more reflective moments. At the end of the symphony, which concludes quietly, although not peacefully, I managed to hold absolute silence in the hall for a very long time after the final notes. It is so important after music of such power, of such violence and extremes, that everyone has time to reflect. I felt that the applause started at the right moment and the public showed its appreciation to us with a long standing ovation. After the concert many members of the orchestra commented to me that they didn’t expect the audience to react as they did, and they were happy that the silence was kept be everybody in the hall. It was a very moving performance and I am grateful to everyone involved.