Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The last of The Risør Festival's 22 concerts ended in a seething series of climaxes -- Ligeti's Violin Concerto. It was a hair-raising performance by violinist Christian Tetzlaff with the Risør Festival Strings under Christian Eggen. By this time, the Festival audience had undergone a rare immersion in superb performances of Ligeti's music.

But because of the wild and insistent applause, the very final music of the festival (excluding, of course, the hilarious caprices that erupted at the all-night party on the musician's boat) was an encore. Tetzlaff alone playing Bach.

Earlier in the program, the Orion Quartet played Bartók's String Quartet No. 5, written in 1934. When the first movement closes, Bartok holds a mirror up to the themes that have unfolded, and we hear them upside down.
My eye wandered to this wooden carving at the front of the church:

It was an indescribably compelling performance.

The Orion Quartet has been playing together for two decades now and they've developed the oneness that comes with that kind of history. Violinists Daniel Phillips and Todd Phillips are brothers who take turns playing the first violin role. The violist is Steven Tenenbom and the cellist is Timothy Eddy. They've obviously stocked their portable box of psychological coping tools for keeping things inspired. They must be sophisticated tools, too, especially given the fact that the four players were put together in the same apartment for a week... and they still came through it with an absolutely unabashed adoration of this festival! They gave nothing but ecstatic reviews about a happy, free, inspired experience.

We talked about the nature of this open-minded audience, listening day after day to truly complex and often tortured music.
It prompted a conversation about the open-mindedness of children, and violist Steve Tenenbom said this:

I wonder if in the US we're not the slightest bit lazy in terms of choices in culture …
Give young people the option, and they'll really go for the music with energy, and they'll let the music speak to them. Then, at some point, we grow and we become very reliant upon movie reviews, restaurant reviews, word of mouth –- we only want to go to concerts because we've heard of that person and they're famous, and there's an electricity in the audience really because you're there because of the star power.… Somehow in this festival, it's really about the music. It's so much that way.

And cellist Timothy Eddy said this:

Hopefully playing an instrument will be taught in such a way that from the earliest age, and from the earliest experiences, the child is encouraged to literally play with the instrument … to use their sense of fantasy and connect it with the adventure of self-expression … it's another voice.

There he hit upon the theme of the Festival itself. And that phrase the adventure of self-expression keeps bouncing around in my mind.

More photos (click on them for a bigger view) beginning with the church's wonderful ceiling, and its simple doors:

Happy festival-goers with ice cream:

Three of the Orions:

Beautiful boat:

The view from the big floating restaurant:

Co-director Leif Ove Andsnes:

And a couple views of dinner:

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Twilight Boating

On Friday night at the Risør Festival , musicians and audience packed into boats and headed to Stangholmen. This tiny, rocky island has a lighthouse, a newly constructed glass stage, a superb and elegant sound system, and, of course, the Norwegian glow of summer twilight that deepens as the hours go on. The audience can drink local beer and choose their piece of rock (cushions provided) to sit on. The Directors came up with a beautiful program that included the Norwegian Soloists' Choir
atmospherically stationed around and in the audience, moving toward the stage while singing haunting folk songs of Norway. Also on the program, Brahms, Haydn, Liszt, Donizetti. The final piece featured the deeply moving voice of Thomas Quasthoff sending Schubert's "Auf der Bruck" into the dusk and far, far out to the gleaming horizon.
The picture above shows a little boatful of highly valuable musicians and their highly valuable instruments, with a bigger boatful of highly valuable audience members.
Here's a look at the little rocky natural amphitheater on the island, and a shots from the lighthouse.

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.