Of inspiration. And a fly…

I haven’t posted for a while – since Salzburg, we have had some hectic weeks and all-consuming programmes. Millions of new notes to learn or polish. But boy, has it been worth it! Rich musical experiences that demanded and received all my energy – and yet produced even more.

Working on Shostakovich Symphony number 10 with the young Finn, Klaus Mäkelä, was memorable. We knew within the first two minutes of rehearsal that here was something quite remarkable. Aged only 23, his presence and poise is that of a conductor with decades of experience. He enabled us – which is the mark of a great conductor. There is something about Finland which continues to produce a deep vein of talent in this profession. I have loved the music of Shostakovich since my teens, particularly once I began to learn the symphonies. I know number 10 well, but I saw it with fresh eyes through Mäkelä’s interpretation. Attention to detail was exacting and yet revealing, as new layers emerged thanks to correct balancing of voices. We were making chamber music. And it showed. I can honestly say I came offstage positively ready to go right back on and play it again. We eagerly await his return.

More Shostakovich a week later – the glorious violin concerto number 1 in the expert hands of Vadim Gluzman. And Copland Symphony number 3, conducted by Andrew Litton. What little Copland I know, I like very much, but this work was new to me. (I love that about my job – that I’m always getting to learn something new.) It was instantly recognisable as his voice – I always see vast American landscapes, maybe viewed from the back of a horse. And there’s usually a wistful trumpet in there, lonely and noble. Homesteaders, quilts flapping in the prairie wind, mountain trails. And a bit of a lively knees-up in the barn. It certainly kept us on our toes, with his signature rhythm patterns and passages which defy easy fingering. It also got rather loud, as Copland becomes enthusiastic with his drums and brass. This is the symphony that includes the famous Fanfare for the Common Man. It’s a goosebump moment.

The goosebumps were back in force last week. Ed Gardner was back with us, leading us through Schönberg’s Pelleas and Melisande. Learning this took most of my remaining brain cells, not least because the publishers (the focus of much gnashing of teeth in the practise room) had made such a poor job. The print proved challenging to read even when enlarged by our ever-obliging librarian, Johan. Was that a flat or a sharp? A rest or an unidentified blob? The only solution was to listen to and become as familiar with the music as possible in the short turnaround – certain parts had to be almost memorized. Again, a new work for me, but one I grew to love (just as well because we will be recording it in June). Plenty of juicy, if demanding, cello themes – and then all those flats/maybe sharps to fit inbetween. Not content with giving us that workout, the programming powers that be had also decided to drop in Don Juan, by Richard Strauss. As the saying here in Norway goes – “It’s not only only!” Meaning generally, easier said than done. Sure, it is repertoire for us, but demands a fresh look at those tricky passages every time. And Ed wanted, naturally, full power and energies, leaning over to encourage us as if extracting our very DNA. I delivered everything I had and then some. Exhausting for the body, but exhilarating. (Did I mention I LOVE my job?)

Then, my emotions got a workout, to say nothing of the goosebumps. Norway’s own Lise Davidsen joined us for Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. She is a truly astounding young soprano, for whom everything appears effortless. Best of all, for these songs, she also possesses a glorious depth to her voice. For me, the Songs are pure genius. If I ever get any choice in the matter, they are what I hope to hear as I leave this world. They are not religious – they are greater than that. Rather, a sublime serenity, a poignant viewing over the world in deep thankfulness. Strauss sets the words, poems by Hesse and Eichendorf, with perfection, mirroring every detail in his use of instrumentation and phrasing. You can hear two larks (piccolos and flute) soaring upwards, hear summer “smiling”. The “starry night” is created in a few notes of colour change and a cooler, brittle instrumentation. The vision of the unfettered soul – his treatment of the word “seele ” – wishing to soar up freely is given wings in the heart-wrenching violin solo. And then the poignancy of the final song, At Sunset, describing the tiredness at the end of life with acceptance: “how weary we are of wandering” – Strauss emphasises this word, “wandermüde”, in a slowing of pace, the darker tones of the voice. And the final words, the questioning tone in the voice – “Is this, perhaps, death?” – looking into the sunset. It’s true, these songs mean a great deal to me. I grew up on the Jessye Norman recording, then later discovered the version by Kiri Te Kanawa and Georg Solti, which has remained my favourite. But Lise Davidsen challenges that. I sat in on rehearsals and performances (a smaller ensemble was used). The hairs stood up. I cried, in deep gratitude that such beauty exists. How lucky I am. How lucky to be able to understand and take part in a world of such sounds.

The Songs were programmed right before our final work, Don Juan. Not easy to make that transition from so much emotion and come back onstage to produce musical fireworks again, but somehow we did it. We were joined this time by the Grieghallen fly. I don’t know if it is auditioning for a small part, but its enthusiasm was impressive. Don Juan sent it wild with delight, shooting past our heads to do a circuit of the violas before returning. As it was a sizeable fly, I was afraid it might blunder into my eye. At one point, it hitched a ride on my bow hand, to the visible amusement of my neighbour. It departed in a frenzy. I’m sure it will turn up again soon at a critical moment.

So yes…..it has been intense! Meanwhile, at last I can walk to work in daylight, a huge improvement. Could Spring be around the corner? And I have been working on other writing ideas. Of which more later ……

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