Going to see a concert by the New York Scandia Symphony is something akin to being a member of a secret society. They are an organization after our own heart. The NY Scandia dedicates itself to popularizing Scandinavian works from over the centuries, some of which are well-known or even iconic on their native turf but completely obscure here. You can also count on them for at least one US or New York premiere at every show. Thursday night in the comfortable Victor Borge Auditorium at Scandinavia House in midtown they brought their smaller String Symphony chamber ensemble for a program that even by their exacting standards was riveting.
They took their time opening up with Swedish baroque composer Johan Helmich Roman’s Flute Concerto, whose highlights were a handful of dexterously ornamented yet understatedly precise solos by Lisa Hansen. As a composition, it shows its age, fugal and predictable, yet the ensemble lit into it with such insistent gusto that it was impossible not to believe: they completely sold it. By contrast, the largo from early 20th century Danish composer Poul Schierbeck’s song cycle I Was Born in Denmark was nothing short of transcendent. Schierbeck was an organist, and the string arrangement is unsurprisingly a lush blend of subtle textures, a perfect match for the stately longing and distant anguish of the melody. A piece by Norwegian Romantic composer Johan Svendsen contrasted with its attractive, comfortably steady ebullience.
Making his North American debut, hotshot Danish accordionist Bjarke Mogensen joined the ensemble for a richly genre-blending, emotionally intense yet frequently very playful US premiere of Anders Koppel’s Concerto Piccolo. Koppel began his career as a rock musician while still in his teens, playing psychedelic pop with popular Danish export Savage Rose, but in the following years he moved to film music. This three-part suite proved as fascinating as it was well-played, leaping from jazzy, bass-driven Mingus-esque suspense to macabre Bernard Herrmann atmospherics to a surprisingly upbeat, subtly amusing conclusion. Mogensen matched a whirlwind attack through a knotty thicket of accidentals to several wrenchingly beautiful, minimalistically ambient passages while conductor Dorrit Matson worked overtime but didn’t break a sweat. They closed with another string piece, Frank Foerster’s Suite for Scandinavian Folk Tunes, the composer himself the featured soloist on viola, a similar feast of contrasting emotions, timbres and attacks. The piece interpolated a series of rousing hardanger-style fiddle dances meant to symbolize the five Scandinavian nations against a haunting, ominous “song of the sea” theme that cleverly worked variations on a minor sixth arpeggio. In the depths of the sway and the swells of the string section, the heart of a very inspired noir garage band – or Norwegian surf band from the sixties – had come alive, in a very subtle way. The Scandia Symphony’s next full-orchestra concert is on March 9 at 1 (one) PM at Trinity Church playing yet another premiere-packed program.
And by the way, Scandinavia House’s cute, lowlit cafe makes a good date-night spot – the organization’s dinner-and-a-movie and dinner-and-concert packages are quite the bargain and the regionally-themed cuisine (notably: fish, berries and fresh greens) turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.
Much of this is a happy Indian summer album – and with the turn the summer has taken here, we’re going to need something to keep our spirits up if this August steambath continues into September. Whatever the case, this is a mostly cheery, meticulously interwoven, smartly playful album of original Swedish string band instrumentals along with some imaginative reworkings of traditional material. Vasen‘s guitarist Roger Tallroth uses an open tuning to maximize the incidence of ringing overtones, much in the same vein as Olov Johansson’s nyckelharpa (a Nordic autoharp with a set of reverberating sympathetic strings). The trio’s lead instrumentalist is viola player Mikael Marin, whose dynamically-charged playing ranges from pensively rustic to completely ecstatic.
A trio of dance numbers open the album, the third being Botanisten, a tribute to some Bay Area pals. It’s appealingly verdant and has some psychedelic tempo shifts if that means anything to you. Garageschottis is clever and shapeshifting as it builds tension. The title track, a tribute to a bunch of Indiana fans who campaigned to name a street in their hometown after the band, starts striking and minor-key before morphing into a dance. The best single cut on the cd is Absolutely Swedish, fast with eerie textures, sounding like there’s a wild mandolin solo going on. But it’s not! It’s Tallroth on the guitar, way up at the top of the fretboard, having fun as the nyckelharpa plinks in the background and the viola feels around for its footing.
Mordar Cajsas Polska (Killer Cajsa’s’Polka) takes its name from a friend of the band, fiddler Cajsa Ekstav who attacked some windows with her beer mug to to kill a swarm of wasps who’d invaded her studio. Ostensibly the results were not pretty. This isn’t nearly as murderous as the title implies, but it sways and spins and you can dance to it, as you can most of the album. Which wraps up with another series of upbeat dance numbers and finally the pensive Yoko, written about a Japanese manager (theirs?). It turns out somewhat pensive, reflective and ultimately very interesting. Happily, it’s not exasperated. Fans of JPP, Frigg and the rest of the A-list of Nordic string bands will love this; bluegrass fans ought to give this a test drive too, it’s a lot of fun. They’ll be on US tour starting September 18 in Boulder at the Boulder Theatre.
CD Review: Orchestral Works of Carl Nielsen – The New York Scandia Symphony, Dorrit Mattson, Conductor
Discovery is invariably fun, whether getting a scoop or stumbling onto something that slipped under the radar the first time out. This definitely falls into the latter camp, having appeared on the market a couple of years ago, but it screams out to become part of the canon, a masterfully recorded, emotionally rich collection of the Nielsen orchestral pieces that you’ve most likely never heard and quite possibly never heard of. The New York Scandia Symphony is simply one of the nation’s most adventurous orchestras, devoting a staggering ninety percent of their repertoire to either United States or New York premieres of works by Scandinavian composers. This cd is characteristic. Nielsen’s most familiar symphony is the widely played Fourth, “The Inextinguishable,” along with the fascinatingly voiced, call-and-response-laden Fifth. Yet the Danish composer wrote several other first-class works for full orchestra, collected here for the first time under the inspired direction of Dorrit Matson (revealingly interviewed here recently). It’s early 20th century romanticism, soaring, bright or lushly atmospheric, occasionally tinged with Eastern and Middle Eastern motifs.
The first three pieces, the Symphonic Rhapsody, An Evening at Giske and the Helios Overture share a robust melodicism that compares with anything Cesar Franck ever wrote. Also included are the crescendoing, darkly stately partita An Imaginary Journey to the Faroe Islands and the subtly uneasy, balletesque Amor and the Poet Overture, written a year before the composer died and inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s doomed infatuation with the popular singer Jenny Lind. But the centerpiece is the Aladdin Suite, based on the iconic Adam Oehlenschlager novel that sought to appropriate the myth as a reaffirmation of early 19th century Danish identity. The Oriental Festival March, the blazing overture that opens it, works off one of the alltime great catchy hooks, right up there with the Peer Gynt themes and the 1812 Overture. South Asian and Arab influences are alluded to if not directly in the suspenseful Aladdin’s Dream and Hindu Dance which follow, the pace picking up with Prokofiev-esque deviousness in the Chinese Dance – like his protagonist, Nielsen gets around a lot here. The high point is the haunting, vertiginous Market Place in Ispahan, soprano vocalese whirling in counterrotation with booming timpani against a shrill choir of high woodwinds. After that, the explosive arabesques of the Prisoner’s Dance are almost anticlimactic. The suite ends in a crashing, demonic blaze of voice and orchestra with the Blackamoor’s Dance. That the ensemble was able to complete a recording-quality performance of such a dramatic work within the boomy confines of New York’s Trinity Church speaks volumes.
In addition to this cd, the New York Scandia Symphony has also released three previous cds: a warm collection of Nielsen concertos; a collection of sometimes generic, sometimes fascinating suites by Lars-Erik Larsson and an album of concertos by pioneering early Romanticist Bernhard Henrik Crusell, whose post-Viennese School adventures are on par with pretty much anything Schubert ever did. The New York Scandia’s summer 2009 season includes an ongoing series of Sunday afternoon quartet and quintet shows in Ft. Tryon Park in Washington Heights.
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.