Thursday, May 23, 2013

A chat with Leif Segerstam

The other day I went to a concert of the Sibelius Academy Orchestra and saw Leif Segerstam in the audience. During intermission I went up to him and started a conversation with him about, what else,  Pettersson. It goes without saying that without Segerstam, the Pettersson discography would be dramatically poorer.

However, you can count on me to not just engage in some Pettersson pleasantries. I dove right in and asked him a question he probably has never gotten before, perhaps not since he recorded the Symphony No. 15.

(Apologies Maestro Segerstam if you do not want your thoughts here. Contact me right away if you want them removed!)

I asked him if he remembered making the recording, and why he conducted the last measure of the piece the way he did (see the second to last paragraph here for a reminder of what happens). As I'm sure many of you know, there is a beautifully searing section of the piece about 2/3rds of the way through. Here, Pettersson very clearly brings out the tritone: a harmonic progression of C Maj - F# Maj. These two chords, in an extremely strained fashion, make the last two chords of the piece. Segerstam asked me to remind him of what happens here, and he simply responded with something to the effect of:

" bring out the tritone."

Ah yes, to bring out the tritone! Segerstam then reminded me that in the standard Western tonal system, F# Maj is as far from C Maj as possible (think of the Andante in Mahler's Symphony No. 6). While both Comissiona and Ruzicka try to bring this out by inserting a pause between the two chords in the final measure, Segerstam cuts out the winds an eighth beat earlier to allow this key harmonic transition to be played strings only, without being obscured by the winds. EDIT, 12.1.14: Segerstam followed the score exactly as written. See here. Was this an orchestrational mistake on Pettersson's part? I cannot say for sure, cause I have yet to hear a recording/performance which follow's Pettersson's score literally!

I of course asked if any more Pettersson was on Segerstam's future agenda, and I was told that everything was planned through 2015 and he wasn't sure if he would still be around beyond that.

I have made it pretty clear throughout my posts over the past two years that I do not divorce the biographical circumstances of Pettersson's life from his music. Others will tell you (and for good reason too) that Pettersson's music should stand on its own merit and that getting too caught up in these biographical circumstances actually serves as an obstacle to Pettersson's music gaining further recognition. Segerstam briefly talked about how in his interpretations he was not interested in bringing out the "problems" of man (I think I remember him saying that word) or the "self-pity." Self-pity? I was surprised to hear that, as Pettersson himself was quite adamant that self-pity was not found in his music.

Well, it was a pity that I didn't have more time to chat with one of the great living Pettersson conductors. It was also a pity that I did not have my score of the Symphony No. 15 with me at the time, as surprisingly I do not carry it with me at all times (that was sarcasm). However, it gave me some more things to think about. 

I'll be sure to have my score with me next time.  


  1. He's only (well, "only") almost-70, I hope all is well with him. Though it's true in principle one can and never be sure of one's future in any event...

    Those recordings of -- e.g. -- symphonies 3, 11, 15, and (radio broadcast) 4 among others (and works by other composers also, in my opinion) have been, sometimes, amazing (and I for one hope he and some label - BIS, maybe, though they already "have" a 4?... - might both be interested in releasing that recording of 4 commercially since it seems he might not perform it again...)

    The details on 15 are food for thought, and it is a memorable ending, I think. Thanks!

  2. I've heard Segerstam's radio recording of No. 4 and I actually prefer somewhat Francis on CPO. It will be very exciting to hear Lindberg's take (and recording) of this work in the coming year.

    When I asked Segerstam if he had any future Pettersson plans he promptly responded by saying he performed No. 7 recently in Stockholm (May 2011, apparently it was amazing). You may recall in a previous post about the recent performance of the Violin Concerto No. 1 in Helsinki. I gave the soloist (Åström) the score of of the Violin Concerto No. 2 and told her to contact Segerstam if she could persuade him to perform it together. I brought this up with Segerstam and he didn't outright say no, but said he wasn't sure if he'd be around beyond 2015.

    So it seems to me that Segerstam has certainly not forgotten about Pettersson.

    FWIW, Segerstam will be conducting in Norrköping this next season but both of the Pettersson symphonies that will be performed in Norrköping this year will be performed by Lindberg. Considering the amazing Segerstam/Pettersson/Norrköping collaboration in the past, it's too bad Segerstam didn't want to squeeze in a third (!) Pettersson symphony on Norrköping's schedule this year.