Sound Of Nordic Music Echoes Through Festival Touching Diverse Styles

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Caleb Mayo led the acting troupe as the protagonist in a staging of Grieg’s music to ‘Peer Gynt.’ (Photo by Robert Torres)

BOSTON — Is there a Nordic sound in music? The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Music of the Midnight Sun Festival, with four concerts spanning two weeks, explored music of Scandinavia in programs that featured the orchestra, guest conductors and soloists, and the Boston Symphony Chamber Players.

The midnight sun, with its eerie light and and prolonged days, might have a singular effect on composers who live there. It might not. Certainly considering a calmer landscape, with extended seasonal light, and how it might be found in the sparse sonic palette of composers from Sibelius to Anna Thorvaldsdottir, could suggest easy conclusions.

But this series offered no promises of finding a singular Nordic identity — a wise choice. Works of Grieg, Nielsen, Outi Tarkiainen, Thorvaldsdottir, and Sibelius skipped lightly over ideas of similarity, offering a breadth of styles from several musical eras.

Pekka Kuusisto was soloist in Nielsen’s Violin Concerto with the Boston Symphony led by John Storgårds. (Photo by Michael J. Lutch)

Conductors John Storgårds and Dima Slobodeniouk led two separate subscription programs: Storgårds conducted the orchestra Feb. 29–March 2 in concerts that included Nielsen’s Violin Concerto (with Finnish soloist Pekka Kuusisto), tone poems by Sibelius, and a newer work by Tarkiainen.

Slobodeniouk led a staging of Grieg’s music to Peer Gynt, with libretto and direction by Bill Barclay, a production the BSO first undertook in 2017, in concerts March 7–9. A lecture/concert with violinist Sara Pajunen and a Boston Symphony Chamber Players program featuring more music of Nielsen and others completed the festival.

There was a Finnish flavor for starters. Tarkiainen, whose Midnight Sun Variations opened the first program, sat on a panel with medical professionals and authors, discussing the effect of loneliness and light on music (vastly inconclusive). But as part of the discussion, Pajunen curated a memorable set of contemporary Finnish folk tunes and originals with accordionist Teija Niku, both singing as well.

Tarkiainen’s Variations, in one brief movement, moved slowly, providing one crescendo, like a large wave rolling gradually into the hall. Phrases were less important than slow, often microtonal shifts in sound, the way light changes in the sky. The larger notion of the work was pictorial, a vision deliberately realized.

Vidar Skrede was the fiddler in ‘Peer Gynt.’

Nielsen’s Violin Concerto, premiered in 1931, received its first-ever Boston Symphony performance in these concerts. The Danish composer set the work in two demanding movements, including three substantial cadenzas.

The first movement pursues shifting moods after opening with a questioning cadenza. The soloist dominates throughout, articulating phrases that wear their lyricism uneasily. The second movement leads with a stirring adagio, followed by an extended call-and-response scherzo, the orchestra answering the soloist’s inquisitions. Melodic lines seem forced, or incomplete; phrases sounded organic but anti-heroic, like unfinished ruminations. There is a quarrelsome feeling in this concerto’s beauty, a sense of incompleteness. Kuusisto emphasized this unease aptly, often articulating phrases in an antic manner, despite the music’s seriousness (or mock-seriousness). He also played Finnish folk music as an encore.

Dima Slobodeniouk conducted ‘Peer Gynt’

At the core of commonplace ideas of Nordic music lie the soundscapes of Sibelius. Storgårds chose three from Sibelius’ set of almost a dozen tone-poem settings. The Oceanides and The Bard veered sharply toward music as uncomplicated landscape; while The Oceanides featured music as an Eakins or Cole grandscape, Tapiola treats nature austerely. Stuck rests linger, as if one is gazing thoughtlessly through a window into the deep forest. Sustained wind passages add to the static textures. Nature not so much described as witnessed.

A second subscription performance featured a staging of Peer Gynt, Ibsen’s sprawling closet drama, with its lustrous score by the playwright’s friend Grieg. He composed incidental music to the play and extracted an orchestral suite. Two sections of that score, “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and “Morning Mood,” are among Grieg’s best-known compositions.

Barclay took great liberties with Ibsen’s language — his rhyming couplet narrative sounded half-Shakespearean, half millennial stand-up. Mercifully, the plot was condensed into a dozen scenes — Ibsen estimated it might take five hours to perform.

A handful of versatile actors joined soprano Georgia Jarman and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in a chaotic staging that documented Peer’s adventures — some real, some hallucinatory. Caleb Mayo led the acting troupe as the protagonist, envisioning Peer as a happy-go-lucky roustabout. Bobbie Steinbach shone as Peer’s long-suffering mother, Ase. Hardanger fiddler Vidar Skrede added resonant folk tunes to some early scenes, a touch that augmented the staging with vernacular sweetness.

Georgia Jarman sang the role of Solveig in ‘Peer Gynt’

The orchestra was dressed for the theater in casual black, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus equally casual in white. The stage was cleared in the front for the players, who spilled into the audience at times. Platforms were used to raise actors above the stage level, facilely moved and rearranged for scene changes.

Apart from the chorus, Jarman had the only singing role, and she lushly swept through “Solveig’s Song” and a closing Lullaby, both sung expressively in Norwegian. The melismatic passage that closes “Solveig’s Song” — thankfully with a repeat in the score — was a highlight. Asa’s death was captured poignantly in a strings-only passage, and the chorus stood out in a closing Hymn.

The narrative sweep with believable scene transitions, rather than the jump-cut actions of the original, changed the dramatic nature of this Peer Gynt. It’s psychodramatics, built around Peer’s motto “to thyself be true,” sit in the background in this generally comic picaresque.

A Boston Symphony Chamber Players program at Jordan Hall on March 10 placed a gentle capstone on the four-concert survey, with Nielsen’s Wind Quintet, a now-forgotten duet for flute and harp by Dutch composer Hendrik Andriessen (1892–1981), Thorvaldsdottir’s slight Spectra for string trio, and a novelty work: Hans Abrahamsen’s reworking of Schubert’s Moments musicaux for octet.

Nielsen’s quintet, its centerpiece an extended theme-and-variations in the final movement, introspectively juxtaposed pairings (flute/oboe, clarinet/bassoon). Thorvaldsdottir’s Spectra played hot potato with subdued material, the trio passing and developing ideas in overlapping sequence. Abrahamsen set four movements from Schubert’s Moments, envisioning the piano work with Schubert’s own instrumentation used in his Octet.