Stavanger Symphony comes to Big Apple

Fabio and Stavanger Symphony at Carnegie Hall. Photo by Elisabeth Krey Jenssen, Communications advisor, SSO

Fabio and Stavanger Symphony at Carnegie Hall. Photo by Elisabeth Krey Jenssen, Communications advisor, SSO

Symphony plays at Carnegie Hall under the patronage of HRH Crown Prince Haakon

By Bill Osmundsen

Norwegian American Weekly

Over 100 strong, the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra – including 40 musicians, 30 patrons (traveling with the symphony), management, public relations staff and spouses with children – blew into Manhattan with the determination of an ancient Viking raid. The Symphony would present the Baroque chamber works of Vivaldi, Bach, Haydn, Mozart and the nearly forgotten Scandinavian composer, Johan Helmich Roman.

Stavanger Symphony Orchestra (SSO) conductor and soloist Fabio Biondi is Italian born, a violin virtuoso and at age 12, began his international career. Biondi is credited with rediscovering the music of Roman, who was born in 1694 as the son of a court musician in Stockholm.

A day before the concert, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Biondi for at the Park Central Hotel. Everyone associated with the Symphony was staying at the hotel which is close to the legendary Carnegie Hall. Biondi met me in the lobby, warmly greeting me by wrapping his left hand around our initial handshake.

“We are traveling with about one half of the orchestra,” Biondi explains. “For these Baroque works we don’t need a full orchestra.”

Chamber works are mostly for strings and Biondi leads as the solo violinist and conductor. “With this type of program this can be done,” Fabio advises me. “Perhaps with a more complex Romantic work, with a large orchestra, you would need a dedicated conductor.”

Biondi’s passion is 16th and 17th century Baroque chamber work, and he has brought this passion to the Stavanger Symphony.

Fabio Biondi discusses his passion for Baroque Music. Photo by Bill Osmundsen

Fabio Biondi discusses his passion for Baroque Music. Photo by Bill Osmundsen

“You know, you can just play the notes,” and Fabio makes a little skit with his hands while sitting on the couch. “Or you can really be animated and bring the work forward to make the music exciting.”

There are language barriers: Biondi doesn’t speak fluent Norwegian but he is passionate about the “language of music” which he says transcends all language barriers. “You can sit down with many types of people from very different cultures and languages and find a common denominator in music.”

Biondi continued: “We are like a big family and I can sit down and have a beer with a member of the orchestra, but when we come to work it’s always professional. When I conduct, I want all the musicians to be engaged. You know, a the fourth chair musician can become unresponsive in a large orchestra and lose their passion. I believe with the chamber music format, we can inspire each and every musician.”

I had to agree – my first encounter with the orchestra and the very first person I spoke with at the Norwegian Seamen’s Church concert a few days prior was Bjarte Mo. An enthusiastic young first chair violinist, he would fill the ranks of this army of musicians who came to Carnegie Hall to play under Fabio Biondi. For the next few days I would encounter Mo at different venues; finally at the “after theatre” party at Carnegie Hall, where he and everyone else was well pleased with that night’s performance.

There are lots of people behind the scenes who bring a different talent to the orchestra and one man who I had the pleasure of sitting down with was Arne Almoth. He is the artistic director of the SSO and presented the mini concert at the Norwegian Seamen’s Church in Manhattan.

He introduced each musical segment in Norwegian to an enthusiastic and appreciative audience.

Almoth spoke highly of the orchestra’s ability. He spoke of how the orchestra was built and how the relatively new wealth in oil has influenced them. Stavanger is the oil capital of Norway and Statoil is a major contributor. All this has played a part in placing the Stavanger Symphony to the world stage.

Our conversation shifted to the condition of art in general. Due to the economic downturn, the arts play an increasingly limited role in the U.S. Almoth was aware of this, but he reported to me that the Norwegian viewpoint and most specifically that of Stavanger was the “city” must grow simultaneously in wealth, education and the arts. Stavanger’s current plan includes the building of a multi-million-dollar concert hall to be dedicated next September.

“The orchestra has played in Europe and Japan but we have never been to New York,” stated Almoth. “We are really a little bit humbled by the whole experience of coming to Carnegie Hall.”

On March 23, the evening of the concert, it was cold and rainy. Winter was still hanging on as our car approached Carnegie Hall but that feeling would happily change when entering the Stern Auditorium and Perelman Stage.

This large hall has an intimacy that I did not expect, accommodating 2,800 people on five seating levels in a curvilinear design which appoints the stage. At that focal point, the stage has a six column-frame and supports a circular vaulted ceiling, which sores high above and momentarily dwarfs the orchestra.

The performance begins with Vivaldi. Concerto in G minor for violin, two flutes, two oboes, bassoon and strings (RV 577) and then moves onto Bach’s suite no. 4 in D major (BWV 1069). Pausing at intermission after Johan Helmich Roman’s excerpts from the Music for a Royal Wedding at Drottningholm in 1744.

Roman, who was a court musician, wrote this work for the marriage between Louisa Ulrika of Prussia and Adolf Frederick of Sweden. They received Drottningholm as a wedding gift, which became their residence during Fredrick’s reign as King of Sweden (1751 – 1771). Haydn’s Violin Concerto No2 in G major resumes the concert after intermission. When this ends, to the audiences applause, a supporting contingent of horns enter stage right and Mozart’s Symphony No 36 in C major, known as the “Linz” Symphony, concludes the evening with a flourish.

His wife Jannet is to his right at the ‘After Theatre Party’ held at Carnegie Hall. Photo by Bill Osmundsen

His wife Jannet is to his right at the ‘After Theatre Party’ held at Carnegie Hall. Photo by Bill Osmundsen

Biondi, with the Stavanger Symphony, provided us with a lush concert which was also musical history tour of Baroque music. Each of the composers from Vivaldi to Mozart are progressed through time about 10 to 20 years each other’s senior. Mozart was born 78 years after Vivaldi. It is noted that each of the five composers reflect a progression in this musical milieu.

In James R. Oestreich’s New York Times review of the concert, he states, “Less than a decade younger than Bach, Roman sounds considerably more modern.”

Speaking to Biondi’s musical enthusiasm which was noted earlier in this piece, Oestreich states: “Mr. Biondi conducted from the violin using a lot of body English… Playing everywhere with his usual fire and expressiveness he also drew stylish and committed playing from the orchestra…”

The concert was presented under the patronage of HRH Crown Prince Haakon. At the after party, the chairwoman of the SSO Board, Cecilie Bjelland, presented special awards and complimentary remarks for all the help that produced the event. Those that were noted at this reception and in the Carnegie PLAYBILL include:

City of Stavanger, Rogaland County Council, Statoil, DnB Nor, Royal Norwegian Consulate General in New York, Inge Steensland Foundation, Victor Samuelsen, Vibeke Steineger, Ragnar Meyer-Knutsen, Inger Tallaksen, Kerby Lovallo, New World Classics; Josephine Hemsing, Hemsing Associates; Vidar Eldholm, Norwegian Seamen’s Church; Innovation Norway New York, The American Scandinavian Foundation, Edvard Grieg Society, Lars Nilsen and Michael Naess.

This article was originally published in the April 15, 2011 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email subscribe@norway.com.

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