A Frenchman, an American, and a Bohemian Czech walked into a concert hall, and…

… of course were represented by the playing of their music.

Otkrytoe Pismo  Moris Ravel Postcard-1910

(left to right)

I was accompanied by Max who is relatively new to the world of ‘classical’ music, so I was keen to get his fresh view of the music and performance. The concert was at Berwaldhallen in Stockholm.

The three pieces were familiar to me but the conductor and soloist were not.

The conductor, Ilyich Rivas, was born in 1993 and made his debut with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 2013.

The piano soloist, Conrad Tao, was born in 1994 and has played publicly since the age of four. He also plays the violin and is studying composition at the Yale University School of Music.

RAVEL: Tombeau de Couperin

François Couperin (1668 - 1733)

François Couperin (1668 – 1733)

The “Tomb of Couperin” was intended by the composer as an homage to eighteenth-century French music, of which a majority of characteristic forms are in the music of François Couperin. The word “tomb” in the title had a personal significance for Ravel, who dedicated each movement of the suite to a friend who died World War I. The manuscript is dated 1914-1917.

In 1919 Ravel completed his orchestration of four of the movements. Prelude, Forlane, Minuet, and Rigaudon, which we heard this evening. The small orchestra employs two flutes, oboe, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, a trumpet, harp, and the usual strings. (Source).

Although the music is not presented as being programmatic, I nonetheless imagined my own program as the beautiful music washed over me.

  • Prelude: Flowing liquid, including the movements of the conductor
  • Forlane: A promenade in a park, perhaps Paris in the Spring
  • Minuet: A pastorale
  • Rigadoun: A celebration, dancing, playing, entertainments,, a brief romantic interlude, then back to the party
Ilyich Rivas

Ilyich Rivas

Max and I were in a position to fully see the conductor. He is a pleasure to watch, often poised on the tip of one foot or the other, thence to spring to action in taking the a section of the orchestra where it should go. He has a commanding presence, generally, yet in the delicate passages does not dominate but rather flows gracefully. The symphony personnel followed him faithfully, and well.

GERSHWIN: Piano Concerto in F

Gershwin successfully combined the sweep and mood of the typical Russian concerto with the blues, jazz, and rag elements he brought from his successful pop music career. His family had recently immigrated from Russia when he was born in 1898. He had been successful as a pop tune composer and as a Broadway show composer before he wrote this 1925 concerto. The success of his Rhapsody in Blue led Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Society to commission this concerto. Gershwin resolved to orchestrate it himself and had to delve into textbooks to learn orchestration and even to discover what the form of a concerto might be. (Source).

Conrad Tao

Conrad Tao

The soloist, Mr. Tao, has the physical presence of a youthful person, but once he addressed the keyboard in the powerful chords and sweeping runs of Gershwin’s music, this was forgotten except to marvel at the size and dexterity of his hands. I saw it as a perfect performance. Half the audience was on their feet, eliciting a short solo encore, in his own arrangement of another piece by Gershwin.

DVORÁK: Scherzo Capriccioso

Antonín Dvorák’s 1883 Scherzo capriccioso for orchestra, Op. 66, is some of the most enjoyable music to have graced the world’s concert halls. This was the time of Dvorák’s first real international fame, and the joy of once and for all escaping poverty can be heard throughout this happy-go-lucky orchestral showpiece. Dvorák wrote the Scherzo capriccioso during April and early May 1883, and it was given its Prague premiere already during the latter month; a much more noteworthy performance came about the following year when Dvorák himself conducted the Scherzo capriccioso during his first visit to London. (Source).

I particularly like the grand, slow waltz that occasionally appeared, and the hint of the river Vltava, also known as the Moldau, that Dvorák’s Czech predecessor, Bedřich Smetana made famous in his music.

Without my prompting, Max said that contrary to his only other symphonic experience, also at Berwaldhallen, he enjoyed every piece of music this evening. So, we will continue to attend together when we can.

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A Sixty-year Reprise in Grand Style

Herbert Blomstedt, Conductor

Herbert Blomstedt, Conductor

I became more fully aware of conductor Herbert Blomstedt in the middle of his career when he was principal conductor with the San Francisco Symphony, 1985-1995. (I was then working in the San Francisco area). Because of his German-sounding name, and that he had arrived to his San Francisco post after ten years with Staatskapelle Dresden, Germany, I assumed him to be from that country.

Imagine my surprise and potential embarrassment as I discovered, on February 20, 2014, that he was born eighty-eight years ago in the USA to Swedish parents who returned to their home country two years after his birth.

The occasion for this enlightenment was my attendance, accompanied by friend Vasil, at the 60th anniversary of Mr. Blomstedt’s conducting debut with Sweden’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, leading the orchestra in exactly the same pieces as before: Bach’s Orchestral Suite in B minor, BWV1067; Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1; and, Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler. The concert was performed in Stockholm’s Concert Hall (Konserthuset). I’ll relate my impressions of the evening’s performance after I offer more about Mr. Blomstedt.

Herbert Blomstedt has produced over 130 albums with several recording companies, conducting the works of German  and Nordic composers. For instance, he has recorded all the works of Carl Nielsen, and all the symphonies of Beethoven, Schubert, and Sibelius.

He has been principal conductor of these symphony orchestras, from 1954 to 2005, a span of 51 years, with several years of overlapping assignments:

Norrköping Symphony Orchestra
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra
Danish National Symphony Orchestra
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Staatskapelle Dresden
San Francisco Symphony
North German Radio Symphony
Leipzig Gewandhaus

Mr. Blomstedt retired from the leadership of symphony orchestras in 2005, at the age of 81, but continues as guest conductor for many well-known orchestras.

Now to the program.

Bach’s Orchestral Suite in B minor, BWV1067 features the flute which was played here by Andreas Alin, the designated solo flutist for the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and also the Stockholm Sinfonietta. The piece is a series of dances, after the overture:

Andreas Alin, Flutist

Andreas Alin, Flutist

4.Bourrée 1 and 2
5.Polonaise, double

It is  a familiar piece which I always enjoy hearing but, in this instance, through a defect in acoustics or the placement of several musicians between me and the soloist (Vasil and I sat at the extreme left in front of the orchestra), I was unable to hear the flute clearly at all times. I feel certain this was not the fault of the soloist.

The ensemble for this suite by Bach, in addition to the flute, were four different strings and harpsichord.

As the harpsichord was pulled away from the stage after the performance, Vasil and I wondered how they were going to get a grand piano on the stage without a great deal of moving things around. Indeed, stage hands began clearing a space in the front center of the stage, barely in time as a portion of the stage was slowly elevated, hydraulically, to bring forth a grand piano.

The piece of the evening, Beethoven’s first piano concerto, was presented by Garrick Ohlsson, a New York-born pianist with an Italian mother and a Swedish father. Please read more about him at the link under his name, above.

Garrick Ohlsson, Pianist

Garrick Ohlsson, Pianist

The piece has three movements: 1.Allegro con brio; 2.Largo; 3.Rondo; Allegro scherzando. Mr. Ohlsson’s skill at the piano is completely authoritative. I was impressed by the delicacy with which he played Beethoven, without detracting from the power of the composer’s composition. I read, afterward, that Mr. Ohlsson was, early in his career, a leading interpreter of Chopin which, in my view, would account for this delicacy of approach. He played without  a score, and was completely at ease in front of the keyboard while waiting for the conductor to cue his next entrance to the music. The cadenza of second movement was astounding, both in composition and performance. I especially like that Beethoven uses jazz-like syncopation in the third movement, with a tune that sounds South American in origin. I think it’s a convergence, however, not an influence.

The audience gave Mr. Ohlsson long and loud applause.

There was a paus, after which Vasil and I returned to the third row to experience Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler (Mathias the painter). I am not particularly fond of Hindemith’s music, but I was prepared to listen with open mind to this most-played piece by the composer, under the baton of a man who has conducted it many times. Here is from the few notes I made while listening:

Square in shape / strenuous / hint of Prokofiev / program music, but what’s the program? / I’ve lost the sense of its shape / enjoy the challenging dissonance / music for a Bela Lugosi film?

Vasil and I agreed that Hindemith was not our cup of tea. Nonetheless, we were impressed with the orchestra’s skill in performing this most difficult piece.

The reader may have noticed that through my recitation of the pieces played I haven’t mentioned the star of the evening, Mr. Herbert Blomstedt. I’m saving the best for last.

As I watched this tall, elegant, physically fit man of 88 years perform vigorously on the conductor’s podium, without sheet music in front of him, I perceived the music he led the orchestra in playing was embedded in the very essence of his being. Here he was, 60 years after having conducted these very pieces, with the same orchestra (with new players, undoubtedly) in the same city, confidently, naturally, bringing forth through the movements of his body and his baton the sounds so familiar to him. It was magical.

The audience, to be sure, was thrilled to be part of this great man’s triumphal return, refusing to allow him to retire from the stage until all were exhausted from the applause and bows. An official of the orchestra or of the theater made a speech (in Swedish, which I don’t understand well) and gave Mr. Blomstedt a box containing an award of some nature. Mr. Blomstedt was gracious in receiving this, as well as in receiving the accolades of the audience and orchestra members.

It was a grand evening.

Mr. Blomstedt receiving accolades and praising the musicians of the orchestra

Mr. Blomstedt receiving accolades and praising the musicians of the orchestra

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A Tonal Borderland

Alexander Oliver, Tenor

Alexander Oliver, Tenor

The title of this concert review is a play on words, both in English and translated Swedish. The Swedish title for this  concert of 3 February at Konserthuset is Tonalt Gränsland: Monteverdi möter Schönberg, or, Tonal Borderland: Monteverdi meets Schönberg. And, of course, Schönberg is known mostly for writing atonal music. There you have the little play on words.

This was an unusual musical concert in that there were two pieces written to be accompanied by the recitation of a tenor, in this case Mr. Alexander Oliver. The basic ensemble of five included two violins, two violas and a cello. In two pieces a piano was included and, in the final piece de résistance, another viola was added to make a sextet for the performance of Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht (German), or “Transfigured Night.” More on this, below.

Hugo Ticciati, Viloin

Hugo Ticciati, Viloin

The presentation of the evening’s four pieces was introduced by Hugo Ticciati, violinist, in English. He told us that, whereas Schönberg (1874–1951) is known for his pioneering use of atonality (or use of the “twelve-tone scale”), Claudio Monterverdi (1567 – 1643), 300 years earlier, introduced the full flowering of tonality in the music of the time. Thus, the connection between Monteverdi and Schönberg, at least for the purposes of this program.

The four offerings for the evening were:

Charles Economou, Piano, Composer

Charles Economou, Piano,

I attended the concert with Vasil, as usual. We both composed written reactions which we sent to each other.

I sent an email to the first violinist of the sextet, Verklärte Nacht, Priya Mitchell. Here is what I wrote, and also sent to Vasil:

Hello Ms Mitchell,

Your performance and those of your colleagues were magnificent, nonpareil.

The Monteverdi was interesting and enjoyable. Had your ensemble first played something from the standard fare of the time, it might have put into greater perspective how advanced Monteverdi was.

The Ode to Napoleon was riveting. How difficult it must have been for everyone to be so accurate (for my ear, anyway) and in- synch for this one.

The recitation from the Bhagavad Gita and the accompanying music by Mr Economou also had my full attention and appreciation.

Of course, the Verklärte Nacht was beyond verbal description, although I try here. The over-riding aspect was the delicacy with which you all played, even in the powerful parts. I have often listened to recordings of this piece, but now I ‘know’ it through your performance, which will stay with me. Your physical identification with the passion of this piece was inspiring.

As the sextet assembled for the last piece, I was startled to see a new yet familiar face, that of the additional violist, Göran Fröst. I knew immediately he had to be  brother to Martin Fröst whom I had recently seen playing the clarinet in a shared concert with Anne Sofie von Otter.

I do not see a group name identified with you and your colleagues, so when I write about the concert in my music blog, I’ll provide links to individual sites.

Thank you for keeping great music alive and well.

Best wishes,

Orpheus and The Muses, by Carl Milles, in front of Koserthuset, Stockholm

Orpheus and The Muses, by Carl Milles, in front of Koserthuset, Stockholm

Here’s Vasil’s response to me:

Hi Ron,

Thank you for your letter to Ms Mitchell. Indeed, it’s very kind of you to express to Ms Mitchell, a leader of the sextet played Schönberg’s “Verklärte Nacht”, your sincere impressions from the music which they realized, and also your respect to her as a perfect musician. Actually she deserves such a respect also as an extremely sexy woman.

I myself would express my sincere good impressions also to Ms Quirine Viersen, the cello performer. She is extremely good cellist. I was impressed of her gentle movements with the bow. I was also impressed of her gentle and intelligent face and also as a beautiful woman. From the men performers it should be mentioned the young violinist Hugo Ticciati. He played with great enthusiasm. My impression was that he is the leader of this small orchestra.

I have to add that, since Vasil and I were facing Ms Viersen’s left side from the second row, I could see her extraordinarily competent fingers traveling, most often rapidly, on the fingerboard. It was a pleasure merely to observe her hand, wrist and forearm at work.

Well, as you can see Vasil and I have an appreciation for good music and beauty in women. This is rather unfair to the equally competent men not yet mentioned: Emlyn Stam, viola; and, Guy Johnston, Viola. I wasn’t able to see these two gentlemen clearly from my vantage point, but I was able to see Göran Fröst clearly He impressed me not only with his playing, but with the obvious rapport he had with the players of the two lead instruments of this piece: first violin and cello.

Yet another wonderful evening at Stockholm’s Konserthuset.

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Serendipitous Encounter in Växjö

18 January 2014:

Gilles Apap

Gilles Apap

I would not have experienced, last evening in Växjö, Sweden, the extraordinary talent of the man depicted to the right had I not gone to an evening university extension class in California in 1996. That’s where I met the woman who would, six years later, become my wife.

Before I moved to Stockholm to live with Eva, we took a seven-day backpack trip along Kungsleden (King’s Trail), in the northernmost part of Sweden, in the summer of 1999. On the trail we met LarsErik and his son Erik who live in a village near Växjö. We became friends and, after I moved to Stockholm in 2002, visited with him when we traveled four-to-five hours south to Växjö to be with one or the other of Eva’s two children who have attended Linnaeus University there. We occasionally saw him in Stockholm when he traveled here with the orchestra he has been working for.

LarsErik is a multi-talented fellow: photographer, reader of poetry, writer and editor of church newsletters, and manager of the infrastructure for Musica Vitae Chamber Orchestra. His photographs grace the book Växjö domkyrka i nutid och historia (“Växjö Cathedral in New Times and History”).

In that Eva and I were to attend the graduation ceremony in Växjö for her daughter, LarsErik invited me to attend a concert of Musica Vitae at the Swedish Emigrant Institute in the city (Eva was unable to attend). I went to hear this now-familiar group play Bach, Mendelssohn, and Vivaldi. I knew nothing about the visiting Ledare och Violinsoloist (leader and violin soloist), Gilles Apap. Now I do, and am happy to share my experience and other information about him.

First, an impression of the evening’s presentation: it was performance art, wonderfully performed. The chamber orchestra under Mr. Apap executed the scheduled music in a manner unique to his leadership and manner.

I would call him a magnificently talented fiddler, rather than a violinist.  He walked the stage while playing, interacting with the other musicians with facial and hand gestures, and held his instrument in various ways against his chin, chest, and throat, as if it were a living part of this body.

He smiled and made other gestures toward us to include the audience in the great fun he and the other musicians were having—for this is what Mr. Apap brought to us through his leadership and performance.

What fun?

The program began with a familiar, standard piece, the Violin Concerto (BWV 1042) of J.S. Bach. This is one of Bach’s livelier pieces and was presented in such a manner that I instantly, erroneously, identified it as one of Vivaldi’s concertos—having seen Vivaldi’s name further down on the program. In any case, the piece had been modified and arranged, presumably by Mr. Apap, to be something more than Bach’s concerto. It was a variation on the master’s work, the master who remains the consummate writer of variations on his own themes within all the contrapuntal forms.

Having already anticipated something different by the casual and friendly behavior of Mr. Apap during the run-up to the concert’s beginning, we were suddenly onto him. He was taking delicious liberties with Bach and putting the orchestra through amazingly unusual paces to meet his intentions with the music. That the orchestra’s musicians played it straight, while Mr. Apap didn’t, provided us all the more enjoyment of this arrangement of Bach’s famous piece.

I hasten to add that this was not clownish behavior, nor disrespectful treatment of the music. The talents of Mr. Apap in rapid fingering and in bowing the strings through complex passages of his own making (and of Bach’s to be sure), showed us the depth of his familiarity with, and respect for, the piece being played. All the while, the orchestra was expertly following Mr. Apap’s lead and properly playing the modified music shown on the pages in front of them. Mr. Apap used no sheet music throughout the evening.

After the piece concluded (and we could not anticipate when it would), there was a brief pause while the audience perceived, yes, it was over, then we shouted and loudly clapped our hands in appreciation.

This seemed to bring a sense of relief to some of the orchestra members whom I perceived were not sure that the audience would appreciate this extraordinary version of the revered Johann Sebastian Bach. There were smiles among the members and, generally, grateful acknowledgement of the audience’s enthusiasm.

Next, Mr. Apap gave a solo performance not on the program, of a piece that sounded rather gypsy-like, yet not so easily categorized. The musical phrases were not western in aspect. I sometimes thought I heard musical reference to a muezzin’s call to prayer.

The audience gave warm approval to Mr. Apap’s playing of this music.

Then the French Mr. Apap announced (in lightly accented English) that the piece by Felix Mendelssohn he and the orchestra were about to play was written when the composer was fourteen years old. (String Symphony No. 10 in B minor). I was not familiar with the piece, so I can’t attest to how much of the piece was Mendelssohn and how much was Apap, but the performance clearly contained non-Germanic and, to my ear, non-Mendelssohn phrases. In any case, it was enjoyable and entertaining.

After the evening’s third round of applause, my seat-mate and I could not help but to turn to each other and comment on how much we were enjoying the performance (we had never met before this). Our conversation continued throughout the intermission.

The final piece of the evening was Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” set of concertos, in an arrangement by Mr. Apap for which he is well-known, according to the program notes (in Swedish, which Eva translated for me after the concert).

I hesitate to write anything about this performance for two reasons: words (or at least my words) cannot possibly bring to the reader its nature and impact; and, I don’t want to commit any spoilers for the reader who may have an opportunity to attend a future performance. I will say only there were unusual sounds, unusual behavior in both the leader and members of the orchestra, and, generally, a unique experience. The orchestra was simply superb in this most unusual of performances.

884501816991.255x255-75The three encores, two Irish reels and another folk-based piece, were performed without interruption. Before starting these Mr. Apap informed us of his love of folk music and of his participation with folk groups and gatherings, including having recorded with the Transylvanian Mountain Boys.

I believe I heard him say he now lives in California, in a small place between San Francisco and Los Angeles. I speculate it is around the Santa Ynez Valley.

Here are some links to further information about Mr. Apap:


Home Page

Biography by AllMusic

I should mention another featured musician for the evening, playing the cembalo, Mr. Björn Gäfvert.

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