East meets West

The seemingly far-flung cultures of Norway and Azerbaijan met in an inspiring concert

Aliyarova Eldbjørg Hemsing and Nargiz Aliyarova

Photos courtesy of Nargiz Aliyarova
Eldbjørg Hemsing (left) and Nargiz Aliyarova performed together on April 24.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Have you ever spent a night celebrating the dual cultures of Norway and Azerbaijan? This marvelous combination occurred on April 24 in Lincoln Center’s Bruno Walter Auditorium; where a concert was held featuring Azerbaijani-born, New York-based pianist Nargiz Aliyarova and Norwegian violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing.

Aliyarova introduced the evening by stating that the connections between Azerbaijan and Norway are not just musical, but also geographical. She spoke of Thor Heyerdahl’s research in the Caucasus region, where he recognized petroglyphs similar to those of the Vikings. He was convinced that Scandinavians originated from this Eastern region and felt Norse mythology also substantiated his claim. She quoted Heyerdahl: “Borders? I have never seen one. But I have heard they exist in the minds of some people.” Aliyarova added, “There are no borders in music.”

I am not a musician or a classical music aficionado. I can only report on what I heard and felt, as a lover of all forms of beauty.

The program began with Sergy Prokofiev’s “Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano” in D Major Op. 94 in 4 movements. Both musicians were taught by Russian teachers, and they learned similar interpretations of Prokofiev. So it was a fitting choice.

“Fairy Tale for Solo Violin” by Bjarne Brustad of Norway was a wonderful surprise. I had never heard of him, nor had most of the audience. Even Hemsing had been unaware of him for quite a while. She explained, “He lived in the early 1900s and was a mystic composer. And like many Norwegian composers, he was inspired by nature and Norse mythology.”

The piece was about trolls. Hemsing taught the audience that trolls come out at night and if they come out in the day they turn to rock. I heard a lot of giggles, indicating that this was new knowledge for many.

This song was about what happens to the trolls when the sun goes down. The plucking of the strings and unusual sounds were definitely inspired by Nordic folk music. Parts were fleeting; with a fast and frenzied pace, you could hear the trolls trying to hide. It ended with a breath to silence.

This was followed by a solo, “Music for Piano” by Franghiz Alizadeh, which also had strong traditional underpinnings, but from a different part of the world. Aliyarova began by saying she had to fix the piano. I did not know exactly what she did to it, but Josephine Hensing from Public Relations for the Arts later told me that “the composer called for laying a strand of pearls onto the piano strings (inside the piano) to create an eerie sound effect, something resembling a cembalo. Only a handful of notes are affected and they offer a contrast to the regularly played notes. One note in particular acts as sort of drone, evoking an Eastern atmosphere.”

Aliyarova Eldbjørg Hemsing and Nargiz Aliyarova

Photo courtesy of Nargiz Aliyarova
You may not expect that a Norwegian violinist and an Ajerbaijani pianist would pair well, but Eld­bjørg Hemsing (left) and Nargiz Aliyarova made beautiful music together on April 24.

In this piece, I mostly heard the repetition of simple chords played with one hand, while Aliyarova’s other hand played trills, light touches bumping against constant chords. This pattern was broken up with thunderous notes, ear-catching dark rumbles like a harpsichord. It ended with a powerful whisper. For once, the entire audience allowed the sound to reverberate to its conclusion before clapping.

These two pieces were specific to each individual artist’s culture, but there were also connections. Both had discord and melodious sounds playing against each other. It was a tremendous pairing.

A brief intermission was followed by two pieces by Azerbaijani composers: “Adagio from ballet 7 Beauties” by Gara Garayev and “Monologue from ballet Legend of Love,” by Franghiz Alizadeh. Both were sublime.

The Adagio was luxurious, filled with rich melancholic sounds and ending with soft tones. It broke my heart. The second piece was darker and sadder, but beautiful.

The concert ended with a swoon, Grieg’s “Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano” in C. Minor. Op. 45. The first movement, an Allegro molto ed passionata had lovely transitions from soft to hard, echoing strings, and passion. It wound down from tension to tenderness and ended with a crescendoed flourish. 

A softer, sweeter piano intro followed, in movement 2, Allegretto espressivo alla romanza. The violin joined with a responsive echo, and the mood changed. It had a vibrancy enhanced by the plucking of violin strings, finishing with long lovely reverberations to silence.

In the final movement Allegro animato, I heard a playful chase. A luxurious longing from the violin entered midway. Quickening punches from both instruments led to the finish.

I wanted to know more about this Grieg piece. According to www.allmusic.com, “The work was dedicated to the painter Franz von Lehnbach…. [Grieg] wrote to his friend the Norwegian poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson that his violin sonata trilogy was closely related to his own life’s experiences. ‘They characterize the three periods of my own evolution,’ he explained. ‘The first, ingenious and full of new ideas; the second, nationalistic, and the third, turned toward vaster horizons.’”

The audience loved—as did I—this duo’s artistry in performing this well-loved piece. Tremendous skill and dexterity was required from both artists, as well as a melding of their minds so as not to overpower the other instrument and instead create a symbiotic performance.

During this powerful concert, I just allowed the music to wash over me. Of course, it was wonderful to have a Norwegian musician in the spotlight. It was also great to be exposed to a Norwegian composer I had never heard of, as well as a to be exposed to a culture’s music with which I was almost totally unfamiliar. I applaud the organizers of this concert series, the National Music & Global Culture Society, and cannot wait to see what rich and unique pairings they offer in the future.

This article originally appeared in the May 17, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.