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Nordic Tracks

At this year's Focus! Festival, the Juilliard School spotlights new music from Scandinavia -- and the results, not surprisingly, are rather cool.

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The new-music world may be a friendlier, more welcoming place than it once was, but it still continues to be of marginal interest to most people, even the culture-proud. How many can name today’s leading young French, German, or Italian composers? I doubt that even those who keep up with European writers, painters, filmmakers, and poets could identify one composer under the age of 50. New music, especially from abroad, has had to be hunted down as long as I can remember, but it’s never been this bad. A generation ago there were contemporary-music concerts, recordings, radio broadcasts, music magazines, and even composers’ publishers to spread the word to those who cared, but those information sources have pretty much dried up. All the more reason to treasure the Juilliard School’s annual “Focus!” Festival, a weeklong series of concerts that explores the music of our time, usually in programs organized around one specific topic or locality. This year’s theme was Scandinavia, and as usual the festival’s tireless director, Joel Sachs, had prepared a groaning smorgasbord for our delectation: 40 scores in all, and only 3 had ever before been heard in the United States.

Of course, “Scandinavia” officially refers just to Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, but for the purposes of this “Focus!” investigation the geographical reach was extended to include two other Nordic countries, Finland and Iceland. That covers a vast land mass, but the people who populate it share much, particularly a sense that music is central to their lives and as such deserves every kind of educational and social support -- an enlightened attitude composers in this country have long envied. Sachs reports that when the news got out about Juilliard’s six-concert retrospective, he was immediately inundated with scores, recordings, and supporting material from the various countries’ well-organized and generously funded music-information centers. Not one of the 40 composers represented, it seems, lacks for performance opportunities or recognition at home -- or on vigorously maintained internet home pages, for that matter.

Perhaps that partially explains a curious uniformity that pervades much of their music. While not exactly bland or nondescript, these scores seem to indicate that few rebels, experimenters, or fantasts are writing music in Scandinavia today. I heard no iconoclasts determined to find new paths and set styles in ways that the holy minimalists, postmodernists, or cross-culturalists from Europe and America do as they busily promote themselves and catch whatever ears there are to be caught. Mostly, what one hears is an amalgam of diverse influences, always skillfully blended and seldom announcing an aggressive agenda. A typical example is Rolf Wallin from Norway, born in 1957. Trained in jazz, avant-garde rock, early music, and traditional classical repertory, Wallin poured all those influences into his orchestral score, Boyl, which he likens to an alchemist’s boiling process. “The ‘quicksilver,’ “ he explains, “is allowed to dominate the work for some time, until the ‘sulphur’ captures the arena. During the piece the two principles take over more and more of each other’s qualities, so that in the end one cannot differentiate between them. My ‘massa confusa’ is figures from fractal mathematical formulas, reshaped into music.” This is, in other words, orderly, sophisticated, and civilized music but not necessarily the sort to set the passions aboil.

The temperature sometimes does rise a bit when a composer goes beyond structural abstractions to illustrate more specific ideas or images. Johan Hammerth surely had that in mind with his La Voix du Chat d’Été, an agonized Lisztian lament for piano inspired by a nasty Swedish custom in which vacationers get a cat for their summer homes and then abandon it when winter comes -- the cries of the poor animal in this case are truly pathetic. Those looking for reflections of Scandinavian folk traditions will be mostly disappointed, but when such things do surface, as in Lasse Thoresen’s Yr for solo violin, the musical effect can be fresh and invigorating. Yr is Norwegian for lighthearted, drizzle, or swarming, and Thoresen’s sprightly score suggests all that through the use of many traditional Hardanger fiddle techniques.

Some composers cultivate more cosmopolitan voices by finding stimuli outside their countries and responding strongly to them. For Arne Nordheim, one of the few Norwegian names American concertgoers might recognize, the sensuous sound of the Italian language must have helped unleash the lyrical extravagance of Tre Voci, three confessional arias based on florid texts by Francesco Petrarca, Giordano Bruno, and Giuseppe Ungaretti.

Sachs saved the best for last, an orchestral concert in Alice Tully Hall played by the Juilliard Orchestra under Robert Duerr. From Above, a concerto for synthesizer (Carl Cranmer as soloist) by Olav Anton Thommessen (Norway), and Alma I: Himo, by Jukka Tiensuu (Finland), both proved that bringing live musicians together with taped sounds and electronics is still a viable way to create an original musical statement and stir up visceral excitement. For sheer poetry, however, I preferred Time and the Bell, by Anders Hultqvist (Sweden), an enveloping sound picture that magically captures the sense of elapsing time as expressed by the T. S. Eliot lines that inspired the work: “Time and the bell have buried the day, / The black cloud carries the sun away.” And no finale could send the “Focus!” faithful home with a bigger uplift than Concerto in Pieces: Purcell Variations, by Poul Ruders (Denmark). The theme varied here is the witches’ hilarious laughing chorus from Dido and Aeneas, a buoyant sequence that was bound to trigger the propulsive energy so characteristic of this composer’s questing music. Like many other Scandinavians, Ruders has embraced stylistic pluralism, but he practices it with more shameless abandon than most and always with the most expressive ends in sight. This time the result is an orchestral showpiece of irresistible effervescence.

Although too much of the music on the other four programs I heard struck me as rather characterless, that hardly dampened the enthusiasm or concentration of the Juilliard students who performed it all. Another lure of “Focus!” over the years has been to watch and hear talented young musicians tackle challenging new music with such eagerness and dedication. I wonder if Jacomo Bairos, who plays the tuba, will ever encounter anything more difficult than Didgeridoo, by Harri Vuori from Finland (the title refers to the end-blown, straight natural trumpet used by northern-Australian aborigines, whose virtuosity on the instrument is legendary). Bairos managed it easily, creating just one of the instrumental highs that help make this annual new-music marathon so pleasurably instructive.

When writing about Ned Rorem’s important new song cycle two weeks ago, I ran out of space just as I was about to point out the heartening number of young American singers now willing to take time off from the lucrative international opera circuit to address American song. Jennifer Larmore is among them, a mezzo-soprano whose generic approach to Rossini and Handel has never persuaded me but whose vibrant engagement with the music of her own country shows her to be an entirely different singer. For audible proof, listen to her new all-American disc of songs by Barber, Copland, Hoiby, Ives, Hundley, and others on Teldec 16069-2.


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