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 the 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

1.Overture
2.Rondeau
3.Sarabande
4.Bourrée 1 and 2
5.Polonaise, double
6.Menuet
7.Badinerie

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 have saved 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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Posted in European Classical/Contemporary Music, Music, Stockholm, Sweden | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Americana at Stockholm’s ‘English Church’

I met John Paval at the English-speaking Rotary Club in Stockholm, shortly after its formation in May, 2003. I recently learned he was the artistic director of a week-long musical event in Stockholm at the “English Church”, as it is commonly known, or The Church of St. Peter & St. Sigfrid.

I attended the first concert and was delighted with the offering. I learned that Aaron Copland had made modern arrangements of popular, pre-Civil War American songs, in two books, both presented in this concert (more about this, below).

Equally delightful was the singing and narration offered by Mr. Paval. He is a strong tenor and, with his actor’s voice, narrated clearly and powerfully between the songs about their provenance. Most were Negro slave “minstrel” in origin and accordingly, as John explained, they were originally performed by white singers in “blackface”. His soulful words regarding these times before the emancipation of the slaves, were moving, especially in the venue of a church.

Old American Songs are two sets of songs arranged by Aaron Copland in 1950 and 1952 respectively. Originally scored for voice and piano, they were reworked for baritone (or mezzo-soprano) and orchestra. In that John is a tenor, he sang from the original version.

Set 1 was first performed by Peter Pears (tenor) and British composer Benjamin Britten (piano) in 1950 at Aldeburgh, in Suffolk, East Anglia, England. The version of Set 1 for baritone and orchestra was premiered in 1955 by William Warfield and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Alfred Wallenstein. (The links under the following song titles go to recordings on YouTube).

The Boatmen’s Dance (minstrel song from 1843)
The Dodger (political campaign song)
Long Time Ago (ballad)
Simple Gifts (Shaker song)
I Bought Me a Cat (children’s song)

Pianist-accompaniest Maciej Kluz played a Gershwin prelude between the two sets of songs.

Set 2 was first performed in 1958 by William Warfield and Aaron Copland (piano) in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and later, in its orchestral form, by Grace Bumbry (mezzo-soprano) and the Ojai Festival Orchestra, conducted by the composer, in Ojai, California. [Note: I lived in Ojai for three years].

The Little Horses (lullaby)
Zion’s Walls (revivalist song)
The Golden Willow Tree (Anglo-American ballad)
At the River (hymn tune)
Ching-A-Ring Chaw (minstrel song)

I also attended the fifth concert, on Friday. Consider the setting: the music offered was ”American gospel” in origin, also known as Negro Spirituals; the venue was, as with all the concerts in this series, Stockholm’s “English Church”; the instrumentalists were Swedes, and the vocalists from America. It was wonderful.

Singers, left to right: Germaine Thomas, Sarah Thomsen. Pontus Andersson on drums, Gustav Rosén on alto saxophone, Mårten Korkman on string bass. Not shown, Toril Briese on piano.

(Apologies for a shaky hand, extending a camera into the aisle, making a wobbly picture)

As with the Monday concert, the program was in two parts: in Part 1 we heard selections from Duke Eliington’s “Sacred Concerts”. Part 2 offered “modern and traditional American spiritual music”.

John Paval was not able to be at this concert, having responsibilities to attend to in Paris. In any event Sarah Thomsen, as the leader of her quintet, was the narrator for this program.

Between 1965 and 1973, Ellington wrote three massive works that combined elements of jazz, classical music, choral music, spirituals, gospel, blues and dance. He called them his “sacred concerts,” and they were performed in churches and cathedrals around the world. He said it was the most important music he’d ever written.

The selections for Part 1 this concert were:

Tell Me it’s the Truth
The Lord’s Prayer
Come Sunday
Almighty God
Heaven

In Part 2 the Sarah Thomsen Quintet, plus Germaine Thomas in the final four, presented American spiritual songs:

Presence of the Lord, by Eric Clapton
Amazing Grace, by John Newton
His Eye is on the Sparrow, by Martin and Gabriel
Take my Hand, Precious Lord, by Dorsey and Allen
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, by Wallis Willis

After the final song, Ms Thomsen invited the audience to sing along to the chorus in a repetition of it. I was happy to do so, knowing most of the words, having sung along to this song and other Negro Spirituals on the radio when I was a child.

The audience demanded an encore, so Sarah Thomsen sang Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo, accompanied by her instrumentalists. She said it was her favorite Ellington song. It elicited many memories for me and I thought this could not have been a more perfect ending to the concert.

Posted in Blues, Jazz & Big Band Music, Church, Religion, Live Performances, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

An Inside View of Some Music in Stockholm

I have passed by the building at Smålandsgatan 7 many times, and have even eaten in the restaurant next to its entrance without anticipating that someday I would be privileged to get beyond its ornate doors.

The building was built for Konstnärsklubben, or “The Artists’ Club,” over 150 years ago by a wealthy patron of the arts.. If one looks closely at the entrance, from the curb to the roof, one might have a clue that something special was behind these doors.

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Please click on all images

I am lucky enough to know someone whose husband is a member of The Mazer String Quartet Society

…a chamber music association which has amongst its membership amateur musicians (both experienced and inexperienced), professional artistes and listeners. The one thing they all have in common is a love of chamber music. Many of Sweden’s foremost chamber musicians play together with more or less skilled amateurs. The society has been of great importance in the development of the Swedish string quartet.

09-03-24kbentrance-skulptur-14Having expressed to her my interest in classical music (in addition to blues and jazz), my friend and her husband invited me to attend the most recent “non-concert” of the Society, held at Konstnärsklubben. I was told that these are not concerts, but “performances” with and for fellow musicians of varying levels of skill and experience, and their invited guests. There is no performance fee to attend.

There is a wonderful kitchen, managed by Pernilla, offering for sale during a sufficient period before the music begins and during the intermission, soup, sandwiches and other comestibles, including wine and beer. While noshing in the ante-room we can hear the performers warming up in the next room. Delightful!

09-03-24kbentrance-moleri-15The great folding doors between the ante-room and the performance room open at 7:30 PM, whereupon we position ourselves on the old wooden chairs, around 50 of us, including musicians who will play in the later sets. Here is an outline of the program:

  • Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904): Quintet in G-major, Opus 77 (1875)
  • Claude Debussy (1862-1918): String Quartet in G-minor, Opus 10 (1893)
  • Intermission
  • Louise Farrenc (1804-1875): Nonett, Opus 38 (1849)09-03-24kbentrance-teckning-12One musician told me that the professionals among them gain inspiration from the energy and enthusiasm of the amateurs, and the amateurs certainly gain something from the professionals as exemplars and mentors.A stunning example of professionalism was demonstrated by violinist Tale Olsson. She was the first violinist for the Dvorak quintet. The first violinist for the piece by Farrenc called in ill at the last moment, and Olsson volunteered to take the position. She had never played the piece, nor even seen the sheet music before this evening. As the group was introduced, note was made of this substitution and she made a small gesture as if wiping moisture form her brow, eliciting sympathetic chuckles from the listeners.09-03-24kbentrance-arkitektur-13Naturally, I was interested to see how she would handle such a challenge. As the long and sometimes difficult piece reached its conclusion, it seemed that she was a master of the part she had sight-read on the spot. There was much buzz about it after the performance as people mingled and chatted before departing. One amateur who played with her (he seemed perhaps in his late 70s) remarked to me that he, and we, had seen what it is to be truly “professional.”Stockholm is not a large city, for a capital city–only around 800,000 in the city proper, and around two million in the greater metropolitan area. San Francisco, my home town, has a similar population but the greater San Francisco Bay area has more than seven million people (all of Sweden has around nine million people). I cannot help but compare my experiences in these two great cities, and find that I have greater ease of access to more performing musical artists, classical and jazz, in Stockholm than I have had in the greater San Francisco Bay area.I am not complaining–merely grateful for the current opportunity.09-03-24kbentrance-05
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Górecki, Penderecki, Pärt, Rautavaara, Vasks: New Music from the Baltic Region

Arvo Pärt

When I moved from San Jose, California to Sweden in mid-2002, I brought with me much recorded music, but only one of the above modern composers was included: Arvo Pärt. Without having looked into his background, I simply found his usually slow, sonorous and often mystical musical utterances immensely soulful and peace-bringing.

Now that I live in one of the countries touched by the Baltic Sea, and having briefly visited the capital of Pärt’s home country, Tallinn, I am now aware of his Estonian origins (he now lives in Berlin). I have, since then, bought more of his music and continue to derive much pleasure from listening. I believe his name is pronounce something like ‘Pairt’.

Einojuhani Rautavaara

I hadn’t heard of the other four, but have been made aware of them directly and indirectly through my friend in Uppsala, Johannes D. We have attended concerts together in Stockholm at Berwaldhallen, a concert hall named after the Swedish composer, Franz Berwald. In one of these concerts I was electrified by the performance of a composition of the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, his violin concerto. I had heard of Rautavaara from Johannes, but hadn’t explored his music before this concert. I now have many of his recorded compositions. His Cantus Arcticus is especially spell-binding.


Countries bordering the Baltic Sea:

* Denmark * Estonia
* Finland * Germany
* Latvia * Lithuania
* Poland * Russia
* Sweden

In addition, countries providing drainage to the Baltic:

* Belarus * Czech Rep.
* Norway * Slovakia
* Ukraine

Pēteris Vasks

Another composer Johannes urged me to consider is Pēteris Vasks, from Latvia. He almost ordered me to purchase Vasks’s Violin Concerto, which I dutifully did and am forever grateful to Johannes for insisting. The concerto’s title is Distant Light. I will let your imagination suggest how this might sound in the modern musical idiom. I have since acquired his Cello Concerto and Symphony No. 3.

Two composers from Poland round out this report: Henryk Górecki and Krzysztof Penderecki. Since I have only recently discovered these two prolific composers, I will quote below from biographies on the Internet.

Krzysztof Penderecki

For many listeners, (Penderecki’s) works call into question the location or existence of a border between “music” and “noise.” Yet despite Penderecki’s delightfully flagrant disregard for instrumental tradition, his music of the 1960s and early 1970s actually achieved wide-ranging popularity. For while the instrumental techniques propounded in these scores may have been consistently astonishing to audiences, Penderecki’s underlying musical rhetoric of exaggerated dramatic gestures, coupled with an atmosphere of brooding, edgy intensity, were much more familiar. In this respect, it comes as no surprise to encounter Penderecki’s music of this period in films such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and The Shining. His weird but theatrical soundworld seems tailor-made for movie directors seeking to evoke unease within the context of carefully structured dramatic scenes. Indeed, the sheer power of the musical gestures Penderecki fashions from his battery of odd sounds – what Professor Thomas aptly characterised as a “broadstroke approach” to composition – carries the listener (or viewer) along, no matter how foreign or disorientating the immediate landscape might be. (Source).

Henryk Górecki

Górecki’s music covers a variety of styles, but tends towards relative harmonic and rhythmical simplicity. He is considered to be a founder of the New Polish School, and his first works were in the avant-garde style of Pierre Boulez and other serialists. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Górecki progressively moved away from his early career as radical modernist, and began to compose with a more traditional, romantic mode of expression.

Górecki’s most popular piece is his Third Symphony, subtitled Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (Symfonia pieśni żałosnych). Slow and contemplative, the three movements are composed for orchestra and solo soprano. The words of the first movement are from a 15th century lament; the words of the second from a teenage girl, Helena Błażusiak, written on the wall of a Gestapo prison cell in Zakopane to invoke the protections of the Virgin Mary; the third movement uses a folk song.

When placing Górecki in the context of the history of modern art, commentators usually compare his work with such composers as Messiaen, and Ives. He has said that he feels kindred with such figures as Bach, Mozart, and Haydn, though he feels most affinity towards Schubert, particularly in terms of tonal design and treatment of basic materials.

Since Górecki’s move away from serialism and dissonance in the 1970s, he is frequently compared to composers such as Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, and Giya Kancheli. (Source).

A final note: I have sometimes wondered whether the golden age of music from, say, the 16th through the 19th century, could ever return–in newer forms of course. I speculate that the creative energies previously quashed or directed by the Soviet empire’s leaders has, since 1990, been loosed in wonderful ways for our great pleasure. In the case of Finland’s Rautavaara, he is carrying on in the great tradition of his predecessor, Jean Sibelius.

Jean Sibelius, 1865-1957

I am sure I have overlooked, or have omitted due to space considerations, many other fine composers, about which I would love to hear from you.

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