Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The New York Scandia Symphony Sell Out Symphony Space

Many years – maybe decades – before Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic were thrilling audiences with the sweep and majesty and blustery fun of Carl Nielsen’s symphony cycle, maestro Dorrit Matson was doing the same thing and more with the New York Scandia Symphony. She and the orchestra specialize in both classical repertoire and new music from the Nordic countries. Much of what they play is rare and relatively obscure, at least south of where the aurora borealis is flickering. Which makes them a unique and important part of this city’s cultural fabric.

And they’re not such a secret anymore: from the looks of it (a few empty seats in the balconies), their Thursday night concert at Symphony Space was sold out. The orchestra rewarded the crowd with rousing, dynamic versions of material that for the most part is not typical for them. This time out, the program wasn’t about discovery as much as it was revisiting some of Scandinavia’s greatest global classical hits via a joint 150th birthday salute to both Nielsen and Jean Sibelius.

The one lesser-known piece on the bill was Nielsen’s quirky, strikingly modernist Flute Concerto, quite a departure from the late Romantic material he’s best known for, but characteristically flush with subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) good humor. Soloist Lisa Hansen held the center with minute command of dynamics while jaunty motives made their way through a characteristically labyrinthine arrangement that was closer to a series of funhouse mirrors than the often stormy intensity of Nielsen’s earlier works. One of those on the program, the Overture from the opera Maskarade, balanced stiletto precision from the strings against the goodnatured rambunctiousness of the brass section (this orchestra’s brass has a visible camaraderie and chemistry, and will sometimes perform as a separate ensemble).

Drama, suspense and foreshadowing permeated the lushness of Sibelius’ At the Castle Gate (from his Pelease et Melisande suite). Matson brought the drama up several notches further with a roller-coaster ride through his Karelia suite, unleashing the triumph of the first movement, dipping to a long, enveloping sweep upward and then a graceful balletesque pulse that alternated with mighty stadium bombast. The orchestra closed with a similarly triumphant yet warily colorful take of Finlandia, leaving no doubt that this was written not as a piece of nationalistic pageantry but as a slap upside the head of Russian Tsarist aggression.

In addition to performing in concert halls, The New York Scandia Symphony puts on an annual free summer series at Fort Tryon Park, typically on Sunday afternoons in June: check back at their site for details.

April 12, 2015 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The New York Scandia Symphony Play Carl Nielsen and Others at Trinity Church, NYC 3/9/10

The New York Scandia Symphony’s marathon concert yesterday at Trinity Church was exhausting yet exhilarating for musicians and audience alike, reaching a level of intensity envied by most players and rarely experienced by the average concertgoer. On one level, the members of the ensemble are spoiled rotten. While other orchestras roll out the same tired warhorses night after night, the Scandia dedicate themselves to obscure and rarely heard masterpieces by Scandinavian composers. Which means at least one premiere of some sort at every concert. The price of such riches? Hard work, but this one was well worth being out of breath for (as several in the orchestra literally were by the end).

The concert had a clear trajectory. They started with just a string orchestra playing a selection by late Romantic Danish composer Poul Schierbeck that sounded like a cheery organ prelude rearranged for strings (which it well could have been – Schierbeck was an organist). They then brought up guest cellist Jonathan Aasgaard for the Prayer by Ernest Block from his suite From Jewish Life. Broodingly cinematic in its Rachmaninovian sweep, it gave Aasgaard a chance to show off a strongly sostenuto, almost hornlike attack. There’s a movement afoot among cellists to hold notes as strongly as possible – the decay on a cello string is almost instantaneous, after all – and whether or not that trend might be part of his agenda or just his usual M.O., it resonated powerfully. It was even more notable as he swooped and dove over the full orchestra on the U.S. premiere of Hungarian/Danish Romantic composer Franz Neruda’s Cello Concerto, a somewhat martial dance theme taking on more of an apprehensive tone as it grew.

Another work from the Danish Romantic school, Emil Hartman’s Cello Concerto moved through an understatedly heroic theme with echoes of Cesar Franck, to quieter, more introverted, hypnotic territory, to a surprisingly upbeat dance of a conclusion. With considerably more solo parts for cello, it was more of a showcase for Aasgaard than the previous two pieces and he met the challenge head-on, climbing to a ferociously slithery, chromatic solo cadenza toward the end of the first movement.

They closed with Carl Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony. With its constant, tidal tempo shifts, motifs that make their way around the orchestra and its distant sense of dread, it’s mightily difficult to play, but conductor Dorrit Matson kept a mighty hand on the tiller, maintaining as much ease as there can be while directing such an uneasy composition. In their hands, it took on the shape of cautionary tale about the perils of complacency: snooze and you lose. It opened with a seemingly carefree splash of bells, orchestra playing a rather mundane series of permutations until suddenly the violins gave off a muffled scream. And suddenly those silly bells made sense: they were an alarm, and nobody was paying attention! That violin motif returned again, and again, if never quite as fully horrified as the first time around – horror becomes less horrifying the more you get used to it.

The second movement, dubbed a “humoresk” by Nielsen, has been called a parody of modernism, and that could be true (it also could be a portrait of a clueless, selfish narcissist, or a political statement – it dates from 1926, you figure it out). Scored for just horns and percussion, the drums were clearly having fun stepping all over the melody, whenever they were needed least. As random as the time seemed, Mattson swung it to make sure it was not so that there wasn’t a millisecond lost when some rhythm reemerged. So the juxtaposition of the strikingly astringent, modernist third movement made quite a contrast, cellos somber, violins aflutter over the horns’ atmospherics. The concluding movement took on the feel of a Mediterranean aria filtered through the lens of Debussy, a careening, out-of-focus, dizzyingly rhythmic series of frozen-rain motifs, from a nail-biting waltz to almost a parody of a march to the sarcastic honk that ended it all cold. The audience didn’t know what hit them: the orchestra knew exactly what had.

The Scandia roll out their string quartet for their next concert, 5 PM on April 18 at Our Savior of Atonement, 189th St. and Bennett Ave. in the Bronx for an intriguing bill of Grieg, Frank Foerster, Zack Patten, C.E.F. Weyse, Langgaard and Nielsen. Admission is free.

March 10, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The New York Scandia Symphony at Trinity Church, NYC 5/28/09

Thursday at Trinity Church conductor Dorrit Matson led the pioneering New York Scandia Symphony through a characteristically enlightening and exciting performance that left no doubt that the Scandinavian composers of the early classical era were just as substantial – and could be sometimes just as schlocky – as their counterparts a little further south. This program featured a trio of compositions drawing on Viennese School influences, and as is the custom with the Scandia, one piece was a US premiere and the other, C.E.F. Weyse’s Symphony No. 6, was making its New York debut, two hundred years after it was written.   

They opened with Kuhlau’s Robbers Castle Overture. This one you know even if you think you don’t – it’s the kind of piece WQXR plays right before the top of the hour. A blazing, heroic theme, it’s essentially a series of codas, one on top of the other, leaving barely room to breathe. But breathing room is what Matson gave it, enhancing the cleverness of what’s essentially a single, long crescendo. The US premiere, Gunnar Berg’s 1950 composition Hymnos (“That little violin piece,” as a member of the ensemble sardonically characterized it afterward) was a revelation. In the same vein as Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead, it’s a tone poem, striking, static and still, the orchestra bringing out every bit of unrelenting tension in its stark, Stravinskian ambience.

Johan Halvorsen’s Suite Ancienne works off a typical 19th century trope. With a few exceptions (notably Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances), lush orchestrations of old folk tunes often leave an uninspired impression, but not the way the Scandia opened this one, careening with a reckless, beery abandon that proved impossible to resist. The second and third segment are somewhat annoyingly jiggy in places, but to the orchestra’s credit, the boisterous cheer never let up and this paid off in the end when finally some wary intensity arrived in the form of a brief, recurring turnaround, stark in its contrast with the endless celebration all around. The Weyse was the closing number, working a simple, extremely straightforward and considerably effective chordal series building to a heroic theme with some striking textural appositions, horns against the strings. The Largo, which followed, was anything but, only backing off slightly from the majesty that would return with gusto as a big dance number in the third movement and conclude with lively exuberance and echoes of Vivaldi in the fourth. It’s the kind of piece that could easily open a Schubertiade bill.

Fans of brilliant obscurities (the Scandia dedicates itself to premiering works both old and new) are in for a treat, with members of the orchestra playing a series of free outdoor shows at Ft. Tryon Park in Washington Heights this June.

May 30, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Lucid Culture Interview: Maestro Dorrit Matson of the New York Scandia Symphony

Dorrit Matson conducts one of New York’s most pioneering and exciting symphony orchestras, the New York Scandia Symphony. Maestro Matson managed to find the time during a whirlwind of rehearsals for their upcoming May 28 performance at Trinity Church to shed some light on the orchestra’s adventurous history and bold mission:

Lucid Culture:  Does the orchestra have a specific mission?

Dorrit Matson: The New York Scandia Symphony was founded by me, in 1988, after I had been working for some years as a free lance conductor in New York. It appeared to me that among all the wonderful concert programs offered in New York City, there were almost none representing Scandinavian composers. When I was able to program music from Northern Europe it was so well received by the musicians. We started the programs in Symphony Space, St. John’s Cathedral, then in Merkin Hall for 3 years. And when it was time to move to a larger space, Alice Tully Hall was economically not within reach. We were then invited to Trinity Church, based on one previous performance in St. Paul’s Chapel.

We have never missed out on presenting a concert season, not even in 2001-2002 after 9/11, when not much else was going on in the downtown area. The Scandia Symphony therefore has a valuable mission: to showcase the music of Scandinavian composers, thereby educating the American public with enlightening and creative programs, and also preserving our own heritage and culture.

LC: You’re from Denmark originally. What differences have you encountered in the world of music here, by comparison to the scene in your native country?

DM: The American orchestras are wonderful to work with. In general, I think they are more efficient and positive compared to European orchestras – especially the freelance scene in New York is amazing. Even with an ensemble that does not play together more than 3 to 6 times a year it is possible to achieve an excellent sense of ensemble among the players, and the sound is often more clear and brilliant than many of the orchestras in Europe. Here the musicians are trained to play in orchestras whereas in Denmark it is often something to do if a solo career is not possible. This changes the attitude and work ethic.

LC:  From your point of view, what are the pros and cons of playing so much material that’s virtually unknown to American audiences?

DM: The musicians find it challenging to work on repertoire that they have not played so many times before. They often express delight and passion for the Nordic music, hearing and imagining the landscapes, colors and culture of these countries as they work on it. The audience is also attracted by the beauty of Scandinavian music, so that is why our venue is most often filled to capacity.  I feel that there is still so much music that needs to be heard, much of it over 200 years old and never performed the US, so there is not a problem finding sufficient quality music to fill the programs.

LC: It seems to me – please correct me if I’m wrong here – that the conventional wisdom is that if an orchestra isn’t at Lincoln Center, or Carnegie Hall, or the 92nd St. Y, you know, the old-guard sheds, that the performance is necessarily second-rate. However, as you know from experience with this orchestra, there are other equally outstanding ensembles playing the most unlikely places. How do we counter that kind of old-fashioned thinking?

DM: It is really very difficult to counter the conventional idea that if you are not at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall then it must not be the very pinnacle of performance.  Scandia has, for example, never been reviewed at Trinity Church in The New York Times; other critics have been difficult to attract to Lower Manhattan. However, once our publicist has managed to have them come in once, they seem to come back. Trinity Church does not pay for advertising in newspapers, so that may make a difference as well. I think it takes a long time and much effort in terms of marketing and PR to change the assumption that a concert that has no admission fee could be worthwhile attending.

LC: You have an all-star cast to rival any other orchestra in town. Where do you get your performers?  

DM: Most of our woodwind and brass players have been with us for almost 20 years, since the orchestra’s inception. At the time most of them were newly graduated from Juilliard and now they are, of course in prominent positions like the Met and others. The string section has changed over time and is now settled. I have had very good advice from the principal string players when making selections or calls for contracting. It is a very complicated issue to build a string section.  I am pleased that Scandia has for some reason turned out to have a “all-star cast,” I believe this is why the musicians like to come here and are so committed to perform at their best every time they go on stage. It is the kind of untold and unwritten agreement among musicians that they perform excellently that forms much of the identity of an ensemble. And then, as a conductor, you naturally trust every one of them and this then reflects on them and the performance as well.

LC: Your home at least for the moment is Trinity Church, downtown, where you frequently play free Thursday lunchtime concerts.

DM: Yes, it has been a long time in Trinity Church. It took a few performances before we all adjusted to the venue. There are so many obstacles in the room since it is a very challenging acoustic environment. It takes a very well articulated group of musicians to play there or otherwise the clarity is nonexistent. Our musicians are so experienced that they make a sound judgment in terms of both distance and balance, often at the first rehearsal. Over time, I believe we have all found ways to turn the obstacles into assets and I think that the church room in the end has contributed to form Scandia’s unique sound and therefore its identity.

So there had been a value and growth in process during all this time. We have also been able to record 4 compact discs, all regularly heard on many radio stations. The CD’s are really the ultimate means of preserving Scandinavian music and cultural heritage. They do not perish with time.

LC: Was part of your decision to play to an audience who might not, either due to unfamiliarity or lack of income, be a crowd who frequent the big, expensive concert halls?

DM: I am actually proud of being able to serve all audiences and offer a full size symphony to explore and enjoy, also for people who otherwise would not be able to afford the experience. Our entire purpose is to reach people and we never know what the music may bring to an individual at that certain time. But humans have at all times needed and sought the message of music in their lives, so this will be true of the future as well. So I believe, even in these challenged times that we have a mission as musicians.

LC:   I know you play frequently around the New York area. Any plans to expand beyond the immediate vicinity?

DM: Scandia has been ready for some time to move to a midtown hall and I hope that we will soon be sharing our programs with audiences in midtown in one of those prestigious and expensive places. That is in the plans. More immediately, the Scandinavian Music Festival in Fort Tryon Park, Billings Lawn starts on June 7th and continues on Sundays in June at 2 PM.

LC: While marketing research puts the age of the average Lincoln Center concertgoer in his or her sixties, your orchestra’s fan base seems to draw from pretty much all age groups. Does it surprise you to see so many young people at your concerts? To what can you attribute this?

DM: I am not sure but that is good. Maybe many of these young people come from jobs at Wall Street? I know, however, that Scandia’s programs have always attracted a very diverse audience.

LC: Of all the pieces your orchestra has played, I understand that a staggering ninety percent are US premieres. Do you intend to continue to premiere new works here, or is there any plan to popularize certain favorites?

DM: It just so happens that many of these Scandinavian compositions, fine masterworks, have never been performed in the US – or in New York. I believe that one of the compositions on Thursday’s program, C.E.F Weyse’s Symphony No. 6 is an example of a US premiere of a 200 year old composition. I must say that the Scandinavians themselves have not done such a profound job of promoting their own music, among other treasures, so that has something to do with the fact that so much of the repertoire in unknown.

LC:  Much has been written about the difficulties of women in music in general, and in conducting as well – in particular I’m thinking of Marin Alsop’s well-publicized struggles with the Baltimore Symphony. Are there special challenges that you’ve encountered, and how can a woman in your position overcome them?

DM: Unfortunately, a number of women conductors involve themselves and the fact that they are women in a traditionally male dominated field when they are afforded the opportunity for promotion and good public relations.  Instead, we should mostly focus on the job itself and the symphony orchestra, as fascinating as it is. If we are sufficiently involved in our performance there is really not any need to be consumed with whether we are a minority or to focus on trying to overcome the barriers. Not to say that those do not exist, and that it will still take some time before there are as many women as men in the field of conducting, including with major orchestras.  Anyway, how would I know if a desired position or opportunity is not made available to me because I am a woman, of foreign descent – or maybe I did not know enough influential people, or had sufficient connection to the money that too often seem to determine how issues are handled and decisions are made?  By the way, I often hear that the musicians feel that it is refreshing to have a woman on the podium…

LC:  What do we have to look forward to at your next concert, May 28, 1 PM at Trinity Church? I see that you have Friedrich Kuhlau’s The Robbers Castle Overture, the US premiere of Gunnar Berg’s Hymnos, Johan Halvorsen’s Suite Ancienne and C.E.F. Weyse’s Symphony #6 on the program…

DM: The concert on May 28th will feature music from the Danish Golden Age, meaning the classical, early Romantic music that was based much on the Vienna School of composers. Also Johan Halvorsen, a Norwegian composer who is not heard too much, but deserves to be presented as one of the masters of the classical era in Norway.

LC:  Of all of these, do you have a particular favorite, or favorites? If you could conduct the work of one or two (or a handful) of composers, who would that be and why?

DM: I have many favorites: Carl Nielsen is one of them – and I love Jean Sibelius.  I have a passion for Gustav Mahler and would like to conduct especially his Symphony No. 2, “The Resurrection”.

LC:  How about you personally? Plenty of conductors are composers as well. Are you one of them? What is your instrument, or instruments?  

DM: My instrument is piano. To prepare myself to become a conductor, I was fortunate to receive solo lessons each week for one year in one instrument from each section of the orchestra. This was part of our training at the Royal Danish Academy of Music.  The strings were the most complicated, of course, but all were very necessary in order to communicate with the orchestra.  The voice studies – and singing – is also really important, especially to improve the breathing with the winds. To adapt to this way of producing – sustaining – the tone and the sound – as in the string instrument as well – was so important, especially for a pianist, or percussionist. Sooner or later, the vertical as well as horizontal movements are applied to our conducting gestures and our perception of the entire concept.

The New York Scandia Symphony plays next at Trinity Church, downtown on May 28 at 1 PM. The concert is free; early arrival is advised.

May 27, 2009 Posted by | Culture, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The New York Scandia Symphony Plays Nielsen and Svendsen at Trinity Church, 3/12/09

The New York Scandia Symphony dedicates itself to popularizing the work of Scandianavian composers here in the US. That a staggering ninety percent of their repertoire is American premieres is reason alone to put them on your calendar. The other, obviously is that they rank with any other orchestra in New York in terms of talent. Who would have thought that one of the the year’s most stunning moments in classical music so far would have taken place in the middle of the day at a landmark, downtown church?

 

On the podium, Dorrit Matson calmly and assuredly led the ensemble through a seamless yet thrilling Romantic program rich with feeling and melody. They opened with Carl Nielsen’s warmly dreamy Prelude from Maskarade, Mattson vigorously bringing out the striking accents in the horns behind the lush, sweeping strings. Norwegian composer Johan Svendsen’s Cello Concerto, from 1870, was next, a wrenchingly beautiful work that deserves iconic status alongside the best of Brahms or Rachmaninoff. Built around a six-note theme extraordinary both in its simplicity and evocation of longing, it has both a slightly subdued, elegaic feel and something of a noir sensibility. It’s a shock that a rock band or two haven’t nicked one or more of the variations. Leaping into it with abandon, the orchestra only backed off when soloist Lawrence Zoernig joined them. Displaying a warm vibrato and a seemingly effortless familiarity with a relentless series of rapidly cascading arpeggios, he worked his role as an ensemble member rather than showboating, which fit the piece perfectly.

 

Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony closed the program. It’s somewhat odd, stark in places, with a persistent, recurrent feel of unease, notably whenever everything finally seems as if it’s ok. It has an almost mathematical symmetry, not only as the themes change but also in the interior of those themes, whether the melody is being passed from strings to winds (as happens more than once) or during one of its many crescendoing, increasingly complex fugal passages. It frequently reminds of Shostakovich, a constant tug-of-war, peace versus aggression and instability.

 

The first movement evolves from a slow, hypnotic trill on the viola, echoed and eventually returned by the rest of the orchestra. Then, the first of a series of disquieting, martial passages is introduced by the percussion, the first a sarcastic march. From there it builds methodically to a bell-like choir of violins followed by a loudly resigned, almost funereal crescendo, horns bubbling behind the lushness of the strings. The second movement begins as a stormy waltz, horns sounding the alarm once again, then fading into a big, full-steam procession where everything seems to be fine. And then the strings are scurrying once again, crisis admist what once was calm, again and again until it all ends on an unresolved note. To hear this on an ipod is inspiring; to watch this orchestra make their way through it with such intensity and command of its emotional sensibilities was far more satisfying than anything a recording could possibly deliver.   

 

The New York Scandia Symphony’s next performance is at their usual home, Trinity Church on May 28, with pieces by Kuhlau, Larsson and Weyse on the bill along with US premieres by Gunnar Berg and Vagn Holmboe. Classical music fans who are able to make it to the church around lunchtime would be crazy to miss it.

March 13, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments