Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Great Openers

Haydn, Ligeti, Antheil and Ornstein have become familiar bedfellows here in Risør. The programs are brilliantly devised, always with the theme of humanity's need for playfulness ready to bubble to the surface. These concerts are diverse, colorful, shocking, and very often deeply affecting. And this audience has never heard such remarkably adventurous concerts. I've met San Franciscans whose regular Norwegian summers are built around this week. I've met the Vicar of the Risør church who becomes a hard-working volunteer for all six of these long days. Because it is a festival that this audience has come to love and anticipate, it is a perfect example of the rewards that await a willing ear.

Great care (and mischief) has been put into the opening of each program. A concert on Friday, for instance, began with George Antheil’s “Jazz Sonata”. It's 90 seconds of manic jazz gestures that feel like they’ve been ripped up and pasted together in the dark. A hilarious slap in the face delivered by Marc-André Hamelin, followed by Nikolai Lugansky and Jan-Erikk Gustafsson playing a deep-in-the-strings account of the Debussy Cello Sonata. Then the cool warmth of Edgar Varèse’s Density 21.5 for solo flute (Andrea Lieberknecht was riveting) and then his Octandre, which was a slap of a different sort that seemed to ricochet around the church like coins in a hurricane. Follow that with a Haydn Symphony and a short breather (at intermission I did get a confession from a 6-year devotee that her ears were feeling a tad bit “tired”, but she was happy, willing and ready for all the rest), and after the breather: Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata, again with Hamelin. (How wonderfully strange for the many who were hearing this piece for the first time here … )

To start the noon concert the next day, something much farther out of any box than George Antheil’s music … a section of the Ursonata by Kurt Schwitters, the German painter whose technique of bringing together fragments and found art he called “Merz”. It’s been called “psychological collage”. Soprano Eir Inderhaug grabbed us with a collection of repeating nonsense phrases. She became a fascinating creature, playing with these words and their marvelously meaningful/meaningless inflections as if they’d been a part of some ancient culture since the beginning of time. I felt like I was meeting a sweet-faced, big-hearted alien. Great applause, shot through with laughter. Fabulous way to start a concert.

The most playful and outrageous of concert beginnings? Had to be Scratch from 1991, written and performed by Rolf Wallin. The instruments: large red balloon, soapy water, knife.

Also on that concert were a bouquet of songs by Schubert, Bartók's Fifth String Quartet (with the Orion String Quartet) and the Ligeti Violin Concerto.

Please stay tuned for encounters with the Orion String Quartet, violinist Christian Tetzlaff, trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger, and pianist Leif Ove Andsnes.

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