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Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Opens Nordic Cool

Diplomats and other officials from the Nordic countries gathered at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday night to inaugurate this year's geographically oriented cultural festival, Nordic Cool. The Kennedy Center's halls will host performances by Nordic theater troupes, dancers, and musicians through March 17, a series of events kicked off by a short program -- a sort of musical Smörgåsbord -- performed by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra in the Concert Hall. On the outside of the building, the blue lighting -- which I took to be glacier blue when I first saw it -- was completed by green lasers imitating the shapes of the aurora borealis, a light installation called Northern Lights, created by Jesper Kongshaug. On the grounds out front, the majestic wooden sculptures of Juha Pykäläinen's Elk Towers stride towards the entrance.

Fresh off a concert at Carnegie Hall last weekend, music director Sakari Oramo led the RSPO in five pieces by composers representing the main Nordic countries. Finland received the most obvious choice, Sibelius's tone poem Finlandia, to open the concert with a bang. Oramo took time with the ominous opening brass chords, waiting until the fast section to let the piece roll, shaped into a to-the-hilt rendition of cinematic scope. Iceland was represented by the most unexpected selection, the Njáls Saga Scherzo, a movement from the first symphony by Jón Liefs (1899-1968, pictured above). The so-called "Saga Symphony," the piece is a programmatic evocation of characters and episodes from Icelandic epic poetry, and this movement depicts the quest of a hero, Kári Sölmundarson, to avenge the murder of his wife's family. In a rollicking 6/8 meter, the dance is unsettled by metric shifts, burbling winds (delightful bassoons, especially), col legno strikes in the strings, and metallic anvil or sword strokes -- a joyful slaughter.

Sweden and Denmark had more conventional fare, beginning with Hugo Alfvén (1872–1960), representing his native Sweden with his yearning, standard-Romantic song Så tag mit hjerte ("So Take My Heart"), and Edvard Grieg's Solveig's Song from Peer Gynt. Swedish soprano Inger Dam-Jensen brought an ardent and present tone to these lovely songs, only a slightly overactive vibrato not quite suited to floating the long melisma that ends each stanza of the Grieg song, especially its high, fragile final note. Our tour of the north ended in Denmark, with the most substantial piece on the program, Carl Nielsen's fourth symphony ("Det uudslukkelige"). I wrote about the piece extensively when Christoph Eschenbach Thomas Dausgaard brought it back into the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in 2011, and frankly was hoping to hear another of Nielsen's symphonies, heard too infrequently in these parts.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Nordic Cool at Kennedy Center opens with potluck (Washington Post, February 21)

Zachary Woolfe, A Grab Bag of Sound (New York Times, February 18)
If Asteroid DA14 had come 17,000 miles closer to us earlier this month, so this symphony's program assures us, life would bloom again out of destruction. Oramo's frenetic conducting style informed this somewhat jangling rendition, with its large outbursts, disjointed dotted-rhythm motifs, growling violas, but also super-soft string sounds and tender scherzo, leading to a slow movement that began with what seemed like an ancient incantation. Of course, the insect-buzzing textures that open the fourth movement lead to the most famous dueling timpani passages in the symphonic literature, which did not disappoint in this version. Only some occasional dolorous tuning in the woodwinds detracted from a fine outing for the RPSO. An encore of Alfvén's Vallflickans dans (Shepherd Girl's Dance) capped off the concert, played without intermission so that the well-heeled guests could proceed to enjoy another kind of Smörgåsbord at a white-tie dinner.

The Nordic Cool festival has too much on offer for one person to hear, but we plan to cover concerts by pianist Vikingur Ólafsson (February 25), violinist Pekka Kuusisto with the NSO (February 28 to March 2), and a recital by mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter (March 4), as well as the production of Hedda Gabler by the National Theater of Norway (February 26 to 27).

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