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

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Guest blog entry, Alun Francis

Dear Friends,

As most of you know, Alun Francis is the most prolific Pettersson conductor on record, having recorded 9 of the symphonies for CPO using various orchestras. Despite the tremendous challenges of this music and the different ensembles involved, Francis and his bands consistently delivered the goods. Imagine the Pettersson discography if it was not for this man's tremendous efforts, of which all of us as Pettersson enthusiasts are eternally grateful.

Well, you can count on me to not disappoint you, oh Pettersson enthusiasts. Similar to Robert von Bahr, I asked Francis if he would be willing to write a piece for this blog in time for Pettersson's 100th birthday. Although I received a positive response, I didn't hear anything until I asked him again a few weeks ago. This time around, we got a piece, and another enlightening one it is. 

Thank you, thank you, thank you Maestro Francis for taking the time to write this! Without further adieu...

Because of my interest in lesser known (or even forgotten) composers I've often been asked to perform or to record the music of composers who have either been forgotten or willfully ignored. So who even got the idea to ask me to take a look at the music of Pettersson? That was of course Burkhard Schmilgun of CPO. At the time that I first met him he was playing in the 2nd violins of the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie where I had just been appointed Principal Conductor. We would talk about the various composers I had chosen to perform and I found him to be an extremely knowledgeable musician. At one stage I even tried to persuade him to conduct, for he certainly had the aptitude. 

At another time I was conducting the music of Ernst Krenek with our orchestra at some festivals in Austria and I invited Mr. Schmilgun to listen in on my discussions with Krenek. (Burkhard was also writing and speaking on music for a local radio station). After I had performed his music in Vienna, Krenek apparently told his American wife that, should his lost 4th Symphony (1947) ever be found, I should be the one to bring it to the public's attention. That did in fact happen when the work was found after Krenek's death.

Burkhard Schmilgun went on to become the director, artists and repertoire of the recording company CPO and, as I wrote, it was he who got me interested in Pettersson.

Reading through the scores of his symphonies (half of which were written by hand, presumably by the composer) I was struck by the trichotomy of his musical language. There seemed to me to be three elements in his music, each one fighting to gain prominence. It was only after I read about Pettersson's childhood that I understood why.

I will digress for a moment and suggest that any musician wishing to interpret the true message and spirit of a composer would be at a serious disadvantage without knowing about their background and childhood. If you don't know about Brahm's early life in the slums of Hamburg you will find it difficult to explain his relatively antisocial attitude to many people in Vienna, especially high society ladies. You will find it especially hard to understand his steadfast holding to the rules of structure. Bruckner, Mozart, Beethoven etc., all have stories to tell and that by just "enjoying" their music , you are missing out half of the reasons why they wrote as they did.

This is proven beyond question when it comes to the three major elements that govern Pettersson's works: Banality, Religion and Strife, which only occasionally find relief or peace of mind.

1) Banality. Petterson's father was an alchoholic and the young Allan Pettersson was brought up in one of the poorest areas of Stockholm where alcohol and prostitution were the currency of the day.

2) Religion. Pettersson's mother was a devout Christian and a very active member of the "Salvation Army" the folk harmonies used in their songs appear in every single one of his symphonies. They had become an integral part of his musical language.

3) The Strife that these two opposites caused in the young Allan are so clear to see in his music if you know them to be there. 

(Most of these facts are now on the internet, but at the time I started to study his music, most of my colleagues hadn't even heard of him).

I suppose there might be an extra problem to add to the above, especially around and certainly after his 5th Symphony. His arthritis was truly crippling. I've seen a film of him trying to get downstairs from his apartment to the street. If you can get to see it, it will bring tears to your eyes, as it did to mine. 

Just to know these facts about his life will already make the listener more aware of the tensions under which he existed.

It is inevitable that, partly through his nature, especially after he became ill and partly by the rejection he suffered for most of his life, that he was often not the easiest person in the world and he was not liked, especially in his home city of Stockholm. 

In the nineties whilst conducting both the big orchestras in Stockholm I often brought up the name of Pettersson and it was almost always greeted by either silence or sarcasm. Opinions are hard to change. But to be fair to my colleagues, I had been partly responsible for the resurrection of someone they had rejected.

Do orchestras like performing his music? Most certainly not. As an ex-orchestral musician I am used to hearing comments but in the case of Pettersson, orchestral musicians in different countries would often come up to me in the coffee break and ask me why I even bothered.

Well bothered I did, and I'm not sorry.

Alun Francis.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Some thoughts on Pettersson from Robert von Bahr, BIS records

Dear Friends,

Exactly two years ago I thought I'd ask Robert von Bahr if he'd be willing to write a piece for this blog. As most of you know, Robert and BIS are a major driving force in promoting the music of Pettersson. Although he said he'd be willing, I hadn't heard anything since our initial exchange, and I assumed that he was just too busy. A few days ago I thought I'd ask one more time, and Robert promptly responded. I cannot tell you how grateful I am that Robert has taken the time to do this, and I am sure you will find that what he has to say about Pettersson both fascinating and enlightening. 

Robert wrote his response around several topics which I suggested. THANK YOU Robert!!!

What was your first encounter with Pettersson's music?

***happened when I was a choir member of the Stockholm Phil, then to become the resident recording engineer for the Orchestra, where Antal Doráti (with whom I became a friend and seriously discussed doing the cycle) was premièring the Pettersson 7th.  It made an indelible impression on me.***

How did you discover this music? 
***See above.  Being so mesmerized by the 7th, it was only logical that I continued to explore it.***

What motivated your decision to begin this project?
What are the main issues with recording Pettersson?
How do you find artists and orchestras for the project? 

***These questions hook into each other, and so I answer these three in a lump.  My interest and - after many years - ability to start pulling it through.  It may seem like a contradiction in terms, having started so long ago, that I consider this one of the more urgent projects in the history of recording music, but the music being non-commercial (doesn't sell many tickets) and extremely difficult to play, at least properly, it is an uphill struggle to get someone to programme and record it.  I firmly believe that, if one does something, one does it right or not at all.  The technical difficulties in playing Pettersson's music are formidable - the small strings in particular are written fiendishly "anti-instrumentally", but are, in fact, the only way to express the anguish, the emotional uproar (and, yes, justified self-pity) within the composer.  But that's only the technical part of it.  Much more important is the emotional part.  Quite simply, the music is draining on the emotions of the players, unless they are automatons.  It is one thing to play a concert and give all;  quite another to take it over and over again (which is necessary because of the technical difficulties) and still give the whole range of emotional impact necessary for the music to really live.  For that reason it is totally necessary to employ artists that are willing to give their all each time, every time, and, frankly, not so many conductors have the emotional depth, the talent to feel into the heart of the composer, and the stamina to pull it through.  Normally, therefore, recordings of Pettersson's music are live performances which - in the best case - do give the emotions, but usually are technically unsatisfactory. 

It is my great luck (or perhaps perspicacity) that I have found one orchestra and two conductors, willing to undergo the torture to programme and record this music in high-charge renditions.  The Norrköping SO, having performed on 3 records with the Finnish musical genius Leif Segerstam, until he pulled out of the project for undisclosed reasons many years ago, was having to think very long and hard, until they accepted to continue the cycle, now with the live-wire Christian Lindberg at the helm.  I had of course thought about this in the interim (some 15 years!), but never found anyone that had the emotional, mental and intelligence build-up to match Segerstam, so nothing happened.  Until Christian came along.

So, a few words about Christian.  I have known Christian, warts and all, for some 30 years.  He is about the most single-minded person I have ever had the pleasure to know, which his different careers prove - he was the one that made the trombone into an accepted solo instrument;  he has inspired the composition of around a hundred (yes, 100!!) trombone concertos, by the most respected composers there are;  he has branched out to start composing feverishly (the Flute Concerto I commissioned from him for Sharon Bezaly remains a masterpiece, albeit almost impossibly difficult) and, to cap it, steered his endless energy and energizing personality to inspire others on the podium, conducting them.

It is my luck (and Pettersson's) that Christian has been caught up in Pettersson's web and is devoting much of his energy to programme and promote Pettersson's music.  We started off by recording the 3 String Symphonies with a small band, for which Christian was Chief Conductor, and where he was sharpening his teeth, and now we have gone on to the big "nuts" in doing the symphonies, with Norrköping.  Since the project has such a magnitude, and is costing so much, we all had to delay the final decision about it, until we had the first recording behind us, but after that, it was voted through with a vast majority, even though the orchestral members knew that they'd be put through the wringer in the process.  There is noone - and I mean noone, with Christian's almost manic energy and stamina (not for nothing is he a good marathon runner) and to work with him means that one has to prepare even physically.  We now have the 6th, the "lost" No 1 + No 2 behind us, and the 9th safely in the can - and the way Christian has shaped it is sheer magic!!!  Thanks to Christian's generosity, we are also in the position to include DVD:s of Pettersson for free in the package - the 9th will come with an incredible, almost 2-hour interview DVD with Pettersson, made in the last years of his life - a totally mind-boggling DVD.  I consider this to be one of the very most urgent projects we have, and we will produce an "every-note-he-ever-wrote" Edition of Pettersson's music, the same way as we did with Sibelius.**

What does Pettersson mean to you, and why you are attracted to his music?

***The emotional contents, the total involvement necessary to listen to it, the lines I can draw from the music to the Pettersson person I experienced.***
Anything else of interest?

***I actually never met him, but, after having released "Vox Humana" in the late '70:s, he took as a habit to call me daily, or should I say nightly, at around 2.30 a.m., when his pains were at their worst, and basically scream out his frustration and sheer pain into the receiver.  This continued for about three months, and then it stopped without warning, never to be resumed.  I can only hope that this meant that his pains stopped/were stopped, but I will never know.  I asked several times if I could come and visit him, but he always refused adamantly - he didn't want anyone to see him in his condition, which of course I respected.  But the TV teams could?  He was an enigma, was Allan Pettersson!***