Thursday, January 12, 2012

Berlin, Teil 2: The challenges of performing Pettersson

The Pettersson component (the most important part) of this program comprised of Andreas Peer Kähler's own arrangement of 6 Barefoot Songs and the first part of the Symphony No. 8. As most of you are aware, Pettersson's orchestral music makes extreme demands on the mental, physical, and emotional stamina of both conductor and players (and perhaps even of the audience as well). Given this fact, there are probably only a handful of Pettersson's orchestral works which can be reasonably put together by a youth orchestra. In my opinion, these works are Symphonies No. 5, 7, 8, 11, and the Symphonic Movement. With this orchestra, Kähler has performed all of the above except the second part of the Symphony No. 8 and the Symphonic Movement.

Unlike the rather excessively orchestrated Dorati arrangements of the Barefoot Songs, Kähler's version is much closer to the spirit of the original, using a medium-sized string orchestra with just a handful of wind players. I found this to be quite effective and moving. Accordingly, this work posed few technical challenges to the orchestra, although one had to pay close attention nevertheless to follow the singer and conductor. I had a very small solo in song 23, but I was nevertheless sweating bullets in the Philharmonie before I had to play it.

The original version of this program consisted of the Symphony No. 7. Several weeks before the first rehearsal it was changed to the Songs and the first part of the Symphony No. 8. In my opinion, we should have left out Till Eulenspiegel and played the entire symphony, but that was not for me to decide. Nevertheless, I agree with Kähler's opinion that this arrangement allows the audience and orchestra to sample a larger section of Pettersson's oeuvre, from the very simple songs written as a young man to the vast, conflicted canvas that is the Symphony No. 8.

For the cellos at least, the technical challenges of the symphony are not huge. Probably the most overt issue is how Pettersson moves rather quickly between simple accompanimental figures in the cello's low to mid register and sudden shifts to the high-soprano range (treble clef with ledger lines!). Fortunately the doublings helped us out in this regard, but it did take some practice to get comfortable with this. In the first half there is a three-part divisi for the cellos, where the top line takes the melody in the cello stratosphere. I practiced this section quite a bit, but the way the divisi worked out I did not get to play the top line in concert!

In the first half of this part the cellos were often part of the soft bed of harmony which supports the beautiful, unending melody above. Even though the notes themselves were not difficult, I often found myself having to concentrate quite a bit here, as getting the intonation just right was not always trivial. When Pettersson introduces subtle dissonances into these harmonies, the pitches really have to be spot on.

For the upper strings the challenges were more apparent. Although the long opening melody is not technically difficult, trying to make it sing and sound unending did not happen right away. Some pitches are held onto for a while, and in the early rehearsals it was not uncommon to hear counting mistakes. In the second half of this movement, when the melody comes back but is surrounded by the stormy orchestra, we spent quite a bit of time drilling the violas on their skittering upward runs.

We had an excellent percussion section and it did not take much time for them to get into Pettersson's particular idiom. In the early going there were some issues with keeping track of playing those repeated rhythms for long stretches of time, and lining everything up in those massive percussion storms in the second half.

Other than these specific examples, I think the main issues for us were unfamiliarity with the music and style, and feeling comfortable in one's place during the dense tutti passages. Although during some of the rehearsals I did not have a good feeling about how things were going, the performance in the Philharmonie went incredibly well (more later!).

As a Pettersson fanatic I would regularly ask members of the orchestra their opinions on this music. One violist told me that she liked the music, but even just playing one movement of this symphony was emotionally exhausting. Absolutely correct.

No comments:

Post a Comment