Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Guest blog entry, Damian Iorio

Dear Friends,

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.



Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Hannu Lintu and Finnish RSO-Pettersson 15 in 2015/2016???

Several months ago I interviewed Hannu Lintu, now in his second full season as Chief Conductor of the Finnish RSO. Me being me, and knowing that Lintu is a very adventurous conductor, I brought my score of Pettersson 15 to the interview. After the interview we listened to the symphony for a few minutes, score in hand.

He was in a hurry, but closed the score and said something to the effect of (I cannot remember precisely):

"We need to do more things like this."

I was of course very excited to hear that. I decided to ask my contacts at Gehrman's if a score of Pettersson 15 could be provided for Lintu. They agreed.

Last night was the opening concert of the Finnish RSO 2014-2015 season. After the concert I met Lintu backstage, and gave him the score. He seemed quite excited, and said that a lot of 2015-2016 is still open.

Finland has actually produced a number of Pettersson enthusiasts, most notably Leif Segerstam. In recent years Jan Söderblom has performed both the Symphony No. 7 and Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra in Tampere and Helsinki, repectively. Söderblom is now concertmaster of the Helsinki Phil, and has expressed interest in performing the Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra as soloist. And let's not forget Annemarie Åström, the formidably talented violinist who was the soloist in last year's Helsinki performance of the Concerto for Violin and String Quartet. 

So, will we be hearing the Symphony No. 15 in Helsinki next year? I certainly hope so! Keep your fingers crossed.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The subjectivity of "pure information"

This was the title of a talk that I recently gave at the Arkadia International Bookshop in Helsinki.

Arkadia is a popular place for both expats and locals alike. Besides the friendly staff, Arkadia also features a calendar full of diverse events: recitals, poetry readings, film showings, discussions on politics and philosophy, and more. Basically, if you have anything interesting to share, just ask the owner and most likely Arkadia will provide the stage for you. 

I had been asked to talk about my day job, but I assumed that there were enough people in Helsinki willing to talk about microbiology, but finding people willing to talk about Allan Pettersson would be considerably more challenging. But you can count on me to take up the task. 

On 22 March 2014 the city of Helsinki was blessed with something it does not get terribly often: beautiful, sunny weather. I was scheduled to give my presentation at 16.00 in the windowless basement of Arkadia. After being enthusiastically welcomed by the Arkadia staff upon my arrival, I was warned that I would be competing against this beautiful weather!

I managed to draw in six audience members. Three I already knew personally, and one I believe was an employee of the bookstore. In other words, two people saw the announcement and decided on their own volition to spend a little time indoors with me and Pettersson's Symphony No. 10. An unbeatable combination, no doubt?

In my opening remarks I tried to establish a few things. First, although Pettersson might be considered Sweden's "national" composer, he is nowhere near the same stature as his counterparts in Finland, Norway, and Denmark (Sibelius, Grieg, and Nielsen, respectively). Second, composers nowadays almost always give their works extramusical titles, which in my opinion creates preconceptions in the minds of both musicians and audiences as to what the music is "about." Pettersson, however, used generic titles almost exclusively, even though people often try to use his biography to "understand" his music. Finally, I explained to the audience the experiment I was attempting: how would you respond to Pettersson's music knowing nothing about him except his name, his nationality, and the time he lived?

The audience then listened to the Segerstam recording of the Symphony No. 10. In an ideal world I should have played it louder, but there were other events going on in the store, and I was not sure what would be the tolerance level of the audience. 

After the piece concluded I began a discussion with the audience. I asked them to share their immediate feelings on the piece. Initially, I had to guide the discussion towards how the work made them feel, instead of just describing the music (fast, loud, etc.). Although some people continued to just give descriptions of the music, some responses were nevertheless quite interesting. Here is what I wrote down, exactly as I wrote it:
  • Odd, bored, active stasis
  • Military marches
  • Constant sense of moving forward, not always pleasant
  • Constant confrontation, a battle, trying to go to a resolution, strings vs. horns, at the end, they move together
  • More visual than aural, scattered puzzle pieces
While most of the above I can understand, I never thought I would hear someone say that this music is boring! When asked for further clarification, it was simply that this music didn't do much for him. Fair enough. 

I then shared with the audience some of Pettersson's more famous quotes, namely the "blessings" and "curses," as well as the "pure information" response to being accused of putting self-pity into his music. I also talked about the biographical circumstances of the composer's life at the time the Symphony No. 10 was composed. 

Having said all this, I then asked if this information had changed their opinion on the music; did the music make more "sense" now. I got about an even split among the audience: knowing this about Pettersson made no difference, while others said it aided in their understanding of the work. 

I was asked about what I thought is the "pure information" that makes up Pettersson's music. I said I believed that when Pettersson set about writing a work, he first established a group of motives, gestures, intervals, etc, upon which the work will be based. This in itself does not mean or represent anything, it is just "pure information." Not sure how accurate or satisfactory that answer was. 

I was also asked about why I was so attracted to Pettersson's music and why I chose the Symphony No. 10. I said that Pettersson's music expresses the human condition with an unflinching honesty that words (or even other art forms) cannot describe. I told them that Pettersson's music can take you to places of the purest beauty, of almost enlightenment, but it will not be an easy journey. You have to climb the mountain. If you can make it to the top, you will be rewarded. 

My decision to use the Symphony No. 10 as an introduction to Pettersson's music was both practical and musical. I didn't want to make the audience sit for 45 minutes, which would have happened if I played the Symphony No. 7. I also chose the Symphony No. 10 because of its immediate impact--it is not a viscerally ambiguous piece.

I concluded the discussion by playing the beautiful string chorale from the Comissiona recording of the Symphony No. 7. I was immediately asked to come back again in the future to give another talk. I thought about giving the same presentation again, since so few people showed up this time. Or what are some other things about Pettersson that I could share with a "virgin" audience? Hmm...

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A chat with Leif Segerstam, Part II

Well, this is quite embarrassing. At least Comission and Ruzicka (intentionally or not) also missed it.

Last evening the Turku Philharmonic gave a guest concert in Helsinki, led by their new music director, Leif Segerstam. Although I have spoken before with Segerstam regarding his interpretation of the conclusion to the Symphony No. 15, I did not have the score with me at the time, so Segerstam had to go by memory. On this occasion, I made sure to bring my score to the concert and have a chat with the maestro at intermission. 

A brief refresher for those of you who are just joining us: for the final two chords of the Symphony No. 15, both Comissiona and Ruzicka cut off the winds and strings at the same time before the final strings-only chord, while Segerstam cuts off the winds only, allowing the strings to be heard alone before the transition to the final chord. You can read more about it here.

After the first half of the concert I found the maestro seated backstage. He remembered me from our previous conversation. When I showed him the score and asked him why he conducted the last measure the way that he did, he looked at the score for what must have been a fraction of a second, raised his voice, and said something to the effect of (I cannot remember exactly):

"...because that is what is in the score!"

I was confused. I thought Segerstam took some intepretive license here. 

"I don't make changes, I follow the score!"

"It is obvious!"

It is? What have I missed?

"There is a fermata over the strings only, but not over the winds and brass!"


The answer was right under my nose, always has been, and I missed it, and have been scratching my head for nothing. 

I was then scolded for asking "stupid questions."

He then put his hand on my shoulder and said he was joking. 

I thanked the maestro, and sheepishly left backstage. The fermata is over the strings only! That is why you hear strings only briefly before the final chord. Duh!!!

On the bus ride home I listened to final measures of the symphony, both the Segerstam and Comissiona versions, more times than I can remember. 

Pettersson knew exactly what he was doing here.

So did Segerstam.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Concert Review: Concerto for String Orchestra No. 1

Dear Friends,

Apologies for the long delay, as this concert took place on 15.11.2013!

One of the most pleasant surprises which I had shortly after moving to Helsinki was looking at the then just-released Spring 2008 calendar of the Tampere Philharmonic. In January 2008 this orchestra programmed the Symphony No. 7. On the podium was the violinist-conductor Jan Söderblom, somebody I had not heard of before. It was the first time I heard Pettersson live in concert, and it was a memorable performance. As for Söderblom, I made a mental note to check his performance schedule regularly, because more Pettersson could be coming from this source...

More than 5 years later, Söderblom conducted the Tapiola Sinfonietta (an excellent full-time chamber orchestra based in west Helsinki) in a performance of the Concerto for String Orchestra No. 1, the subject of this review. 

As I've probably mentioned before, every time I hear/see Pettersson live in performance I realize just how difficult this music is to play. About a year before this concert, I saw the same piece performed in Berlin, and the difficulties of the music appeared to overwhelm the musicians at times. Having seen the Tapiola Sinfonietta many times over the years, I am thoroughly familiar with their amazing ability and was looking forward to this concert. 

Söderblom led the piece from the concertmaster's chair. The first thing which struck me was the tight ensemble and extra-sharp articulations from the violas, who open the piece with repeated-note stabs. The entrance of the violins, with that motive based on fourths and fifths, came across as being a bit too cautious, instead of the storm of rosin I was hoping for. This was a general impression I had of this movement. 

While the contributions from the first desk players were excellent, in addition to the sense of cautiousness there were several transitional passages in the first movement which could have used a little more rehearsal. 

The second movement went about as well as I could have imagined. The opening "sigh" in e minor was chillingly played, the repeated notes were played with such maniacal insistence that they became almost disturbing, and the broad, quasi-Mahlerian section in Db/C# was extremely effective. 

The final movement went well, but again I felt that there was a certain sense of cautiousness. I'm so used to the final pages being taken relatively slowly, where the music is searching, falling into eb minor. As I've never seen the score, I do not know what tempo indication Pettersson had in mind. In this performance, the final measures went by pretty quickly, similar to Lindberg's take. Since Lindberg does such an incredible job of conducting exactly what  Pettersson writes, I'll assume that Söderblom was doing the same. 

Overall a great performance, and maybe another rehearsal would have made it amazing. 

So, what Pettersson will Söderblom perform next? Hopefully it will be sooner than five years from now...

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Recording Review: Symphony No. 9, Norrköping SO, Lindberg

Dear Friends,

My review of this stunning new recording has been published online at ResMusica. Read here in English, or French, if you prefer. Enjoy!