MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

A Mind-Expanding Evening with Seattle Symphony

Carl_Nielsen_c._1908_-_Restoration

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931); photo from 1908

Last night was the first of two programs being led this month by Thomas Dausgaard, Seattle Symphony’s principal guest conductor. If you want to experience how Carl Nielsen’s symphonic music can deliver some of the most lofty moments in the concert hall, Dausgaard is the one to be your guide.

The symphonic music of Nielsen, the conductor’s fellow Dane, still awaits the level of recognition by the public at large that would be anywhere near commensurate with its quality. Dausgaard’s commanding interpretation last night made it clear that he regards this music on a par with the symphonies of Nielsen’s symphonist contemporaries, Sibelius and Mahler (whose Tenth Symphony Dausgaard has recorded with the SSO).

Last season Dausgaard led the SSO in Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony (“The Inextinguishable”). Unfortunately I had to miss that performance though I later heard lots of good buzz about it. One result is that it was decided at the last minute while planning the current season to make room for the Third Symphony from 1910-11.

I can see why. This is one of those remarkable collaborations between conductor and orchestra that simply works, for whatever reasons of chemistry and collective inspiration. It’s similar to how music director Ludovic Morlot has managed to turn the SSO into one of today’s premier exponents of Dutilleux.

Even without a history of being steeped in this music — of  performing it over a long period (on the part of the players, that is) — the Nielsen sounded vital and necessary. The Third abounds in interpretive enigmas. Take, for instance, the title, Sinfonia espansiva, even though it’s not a particularly epic work. There’s also the issue of Nielsen’s scoring, which adds a solo soprano and baritone to the soundscape, but only for a portion of one movement (and without words — they’re just used as a timbral addition, though in context it seems they are symbolic, too).

Nielsen resorts to a conventional four-movement plan, but his originality permeates the Third. The powerful unison chords on A that launch the piece make for one of the most striking starts of any symphony — the Eroica‘s industrial revolution factories turned into something cosmic. (The opening of John Adams’s Harmonielehre also comes to mind.)

Nielsen goes on to stage the fundamental symphonic idea of conflict in an extraordinary way. It’s as if the two main impulses of the work — the primal urgency of the opening and an elated, out-of-doors exuberance of being lost in nature (one possible signification of the expansiveness intended) — are unfolding on separate tracks, within and across its movements.

Yet, in Dausgaard’s reading, they made sense as complementary, ultimately striving towards a synthesis. This is music the conductor has obviously internalized. Dausgaard conducted without score or stand to impede his interactions with the SSO, and from those opening shocks, he seemed to command an overview of the entire trajectory of the piece, through all its details.

Here was another sense of expansion: simple seeds that can sprout into something majestic. But Nielsen’s originality is to suggest that through ellipsis … He doesn’t need a gigantic movement, in which we see every frame, to get the point across.

The Andante pastorale was especially beguiling, almost implying a creation-of-the-world scenario that was far more than bucolic daytripping. The entrance of the male and female human voices (John Taylor Ward and Estelí Gomez, literally singing from on high in the organ loft) became the Nielsenesque equivalent of the evolution Mahler scopes out in his massive Third, but telescoped into a frame that seemed almost casual. The Rheingoldish E-flat major of the Andante‘s gentle ending was a moment to savor — such beautiful work from Jeffrey Baker on flute and Jeff Fair leading the dulcet horns.

Dausgaard elicited many other examples of superb solo work but also shaped the score’s contrapuntal richness in full dimension, allowing for light and shade and clarifying lines in the mid- and background as well.  The almost manic dynamism of Nielsen’s climaxes emerged in doses of controlled ecstasy. Sinfonia espansiva turned out to be an epic in compact form.

Patrons were invited to stay on after Thursday’s concert to continue exploring Nielsen: a special dessert (Thursday only) offered the String Quartet No. 4 in F major, performed with fervor by violinist Stephen Bryant and violist Timothy Hale (both SSO players) and UW music students Erin Kelly (violin) and  Chris Young (cello).

The concert’s first half featured a U.S. premiere: Snow, the second number in a pair of compositions by Helen Grime inspired by the artist Joan Eardley (1921-63). (The first is Catterline in Winter.) Dausgaard, who also serves as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, joined with the BBC to commission these as part of a series called Scottish Inspirations. Snow was premiered at the 2016 Proms.

Helen Grime, who was born in 1981 and grew up in Scotland, spoke in an interview with the SSO’s Andrew Stiefel of what attracted her to Eardley’s paintings: “There’s a real bleakness that I think Eardley brings across beautifully in her paintings. You immediately get a strong feeling of the landscape, of the place, and of being there.”

(c) DACS/Anne Morrison; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Snow, Joan Eardley, c. 1958

Lasting about 9 minutes, Snow is an accomplished mini-tone poem of considerable imagination. “I wasn’t trying to re-create [the Eardley paintings] as musical pictures,” Grime remarks. “I wanted it to be like you were imagining the same scene in different ways.”

Grime showed herself to be a highly skilled orchestrator, but instead of using her large orchestral apparatus merely to create an atmospheric haze, Snow conveys a distinct impression of “moving on” to a different place by the end — what we’ve heard, the sounds that have happened, matter.

Also on the first half was a welcome return visit by Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto for Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Kuusisto made quite an impression with the Sibelius Concerto when Dausgaard invited him as part of his three-part Sibelius cycle in spring 2015.

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a moment of interaction between violin soloist Pekka Kuusisto and Thomas Dausgaard; photo (c) Brandon Patoc

From that memory, I expected Kuusisto to take a notably original approach to such a familiar score, and he did not disappoint.  He played up the contrast between where Mendelssohn famously starts out (with the soloist joining in almost at once) and where he takes us by the end. In this, Dausgaard was completely on the same page. It was fascinating to witness the active interactions and gestures between the two. The first movement had an added note of defiance to its pathos, while in the sparkling finale Kuusisto became a trickster, teasing and inciting the orchestra.

As with the Nielsen, here was an enigma: there’s something self-effacing about Kuusisto, yet he radiates a strong personality. He was at his finest in the middle Andante, phrased with the direct, unaffected emotions of the most serene folk song. And in an encore, Kuusisto showed another side of traditional folk music-making, with a slyly humorous performance of an example from his native Finland.

If you go: the program repeats Friday and Saturday (June 9 and 10); next week Dausgaard leads the SSO in an all-Strauss program (Four Last Songs and An Alpine Symphony), on June 15 and 17. Tickets at the links provided or call  206.215.4747.

(c) 2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved. 

Filed under: new music, review, Seattle Symphony

2 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Lisa Hirsch says:

    I don’t understand why Nielsen isn’t performed as much as Sibelius in the US. He’s a great and original composer; I love the symphonies and concertos so much.

    Also, I wasn’t going to SFS much in the years Herbert Blomstedt was playing him all the time, sigh.

    • Thomas May says:

      Totally agree, Lisa. Isn’t it weird how, even as we rethink the very mission of the orchestra, there’s such inertia about certain aspects of the rep? The same old same olds over and over, so much stuff we know is fantastic getting overlooked (and that’s referring just to the past).
      Blomstedt clearly gets credit for helping to pull Nielsen out of obscurity, tho I’ve heard mixed things about his actual interpretation of works like the Sinfonia espansiva. Dausgaard is just brilliant with this rep. Which is SO different, as you know, from Sibelius, despite the Pavlovian linkage of their names (the way Bruckner and Mahler used to get coupled all the time in such a silly way).

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