Saturday, August 31, 2013

Guest blog entry, Christopher Russell

Dear Friends,

Earlier this year, some very fortunate people in east Los Angeles had the opportunity to hear the first live performance of a Pettersson symphony in the US in almost 30 years. The conductor of that performance, Christopher Russell, has kindly agreed to share his thoughts for my blog. Enjoy reading, and thank you very much Chris!

In March of 2013, I conducted a performance of Pettersson’s 7th Symphony in California with my terrific orchestra at Azusa Pacific University. I have long been fascinated and moved by Pettersson’s music and was very happy to finally get the chance to program one of them. Amazingly, this was the first performance of a Pettersson symphony in the US in almost 30 years and was the first time one of his symphonies had ever been played in California. I know that on the Allan Pettersson Enthusiasts Facebook page, a lot has been said about wishing to program symphonies other than the 7th since that one seems to be done more than all of the others combined. I thought very hard about programming the 8th instead, partly because that was the first one of his symphonies that I heard and that is the symphony that started my lifelong admiration for his music. In the end I decided on the 7th because I believe it to be a perfect introduction to his music for those in the orchestra and audience who did not know his music, which was virtually everyone. Plus at about 45 minutes, it’s not as long as some of the others and would not need as much rehearsal time. Overall, of course, it is really a masterpiece and one that I felt very strongly about being able to do successfully. Much of my thought process, some player reactions and a short video were kindly published by Norman Lebrecht in his blog Slipped Disc back in February. In my orchestra we have recently done Mahler’s 2nd Symphony and a couple of Shostakovich symphonies (the 10th Symphony and the weird but wonderful 2nd Symphony) so I told them that they may hear some similarities at first when playing Pettersson but in the end Pettersson sounds like no one else. I also told them I have heard all of his symphonies by and in them there are moments of great anger and overwhelming sadness but also unbelievable beauty and peace. However, I told them, I’ve never heard a single happy or joyous moment in any of his works (if any other listener knows of one in his symphonies, I’d be curious to know). With that we launched in. Once they started tackling the difficulties and the uniqueness of it, many began to understand the music more fully. Pettersson is a composer who likes writing in extreme registers, particularly very high registers in the flutes and violins. You need to have very strong sections here in order to pull off his pieces. Fortunately, I have that. Also, the horns frequently play lots of high, loud and long tones, which is incredibly taxing on the players. I told my principal that he would absolutely need an assistant and should not play first on any other piece on the program, which he did. These are absolutely not easy pieces to play. (The program had two Brahms pieces on the first half, Tragic Overture and Alto Rhapsody, making for a very somber evening.) We had about three weeks to put the program together. This is longer than a professional orchestra but about average for most top music schools. Rehearsals progressed at a good pace but I had to make sure to leave a couple of rehearsals for complete run throughs. Playing for 45 minutes is not a big deal, playing 45 continuous minutes is a big deal. When you play for that long, you need to carefully pace yourself in ways that are different than a multi-movement symphony. One part of the score that I always found enigmatic was the high harmonics at the end. I couldn’t quite decide whether this was a peaceful end or a prelude to another tragedy that would occur after the music ended. While rehearsing it, I was told by a colleague of mine that Pettersson told him that the ending is either angels singing or gang members whistling sardonically. These two very opposite images actually made complete sense to me. The ending that I always thought enigmatic is actually supposed to be that way! The end of the 7th can be interpreted by any listener to decide which way the ending leans. Before we played it in concert, I gave a spoken introduction to the audience and had the orchestra play excerpts from it to give them a deeper understanding of the journey they were about to take. The performance went extremely well and I was very proud of my players. It got a standing ovation from many in the audience. For me personally, it was one of the most exhausting pieces I’ve ever conducted both mentally and physically. I felt more drained after this performance than after other giant pieces I’ve conducted like Beethoven 9th and Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony, both longer than the Pettersson with the Shostakovich also played continuously. My orchestra’s reaction was a little different than Alun Francis’. It was certainly mixed there is no question about that (comments are in the Slipped Disc blog.) I did have some great reactions though. I will give you two examples. One was the contrabassoon player, who I hired for the occasion. He is a seasoned player with many orchestras. After the concert, he came up to me and said how grateful he was to have played this piece. He told me how the string chorale in the 7th was one of the most beautiful things he’d ever heard and how he would be listening to more of his works. I’ll close with an email that I received the day after the performance. It perfectly encapsulates the power and long lasting effect that Pettersson’s music can have:
I was at the symphony orchestra concert last night and I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated the performance of Pettersson's 7th symphony. When the piece was introduced I had no context it and was fairly worried that I wouldn't be able to track with the music, as it is such a long, continuous movement. However, once the orchestra started playing, I was completely enraptured and enjoyed every moment of it. This piece spoke deeply to my being and I was left with a sense of awe at the end. I've found that when you come across a piece of music that resonates so purely with you, you hold onto that moment for all its worth. This was one of those moments for me. For me, and I think for Pettersson, there were angels singing at the end in those violins. Christopher Russell Orange County, California

1 comment:

  1. BRAVO et MERCI pour Allan Pettersson, cher Mr Russell !!! Comme vous, j'ai découvert cette musique SUBLIME par la 8ème Symphonie avec Sergiu Commissiona dirigeant l'orchestre de Baltimore (enregistrement sur DGG). Hélas, faisant partie du monde francophone et, pire encore, citoyen belge, je vis dans un DESERT petterssonnien !!! Je ne puis donc entendre cette musique que par les enregistrements d'Alun Francis et de Christian Lindberg et accueillir avec joie tout ce qui concerne ce MAÎTRE de la Symphonie !!!

    S'agissant de la fin de la 7ème Symphonie, j'estime, pour en comprendre le sens, qu'il importe de tenir compte de la SUBLIME seconde "île lyrique" (entre 25' et 30' de l'enregistrement de Dorati). C'est ce "chant de l'enfant" dans cette "foire de charognards" que Pettersson a toujours évoqué. Après cinq autres minutes de la reprise du drame et de l'angoisse, la "Coda" commence et me paraît symboliser alors une sublimation de la douleur (le motif est celui, en Si mineur, qui ouvre le "débat"). Je le définis donc de la part de Pettersson comme un symbole de sérénité et d'acceptation de son douloureux destin ...

    Bien à vous !!!

    Michel LONCIN