Symphonic Dances

Stavanger Symphony Orchestra recording takes a musical journey through the cultures of area locals

Melinda Bargreen
Everett, Wash.

Gisle Kverndokk

Gisle Kverndokk
Symphonic Dances
Stavanger Symphony Orchestra

Norway’s best-known composers, including Edvard Grieg and Johan Halvorsen, have often turned to folk music as inspiration for their classical scores—orchestral music, piano pieces, chamber music, and songs. Thus, it’s not surprising that when the Norwegian Ministry of Culture wanted a work to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Norway’s Constitution, they asked the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra for a new work based on folk music from the different ethnic groups living in the Stavanger area. The Stavanger Symphony chose composer Gisle Kverndokk for this commission, and the results have been newly recorded in a disc that’s remarkable for its variety of colors, themes, and instrumentation.

And it’s certainly not all Nordic. Kverndokk immersed himself in the folk music of Norway’s immigrant communities, incorporating music from 12 different countries: Norway, Sweden, Poland, Greece, Kurdistan, Madagascar, Eritrea, China, Afghanistan, Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela.

So what does all this sound like? Not nearly as chaotic as one might surmise from the mashup of cultures this list represents.  The music is tonal, attractive, and colorful, and the score’s various movements hang together surprisingly well.

In his statement about the work, composer Kverndokk said: “After a while, I began to feel that all this music was becoming my own, that the material no longer came from different parts of the world but was rather a wide spectrum of beautiful melodies and rhythms living their own lives in my head. Everything fell into place, my musical imagination was running at full speed, and the piece almost wrote itself.”

Kverndokk soon discovered common threads among his folk-theme sources; songs about the sea, love songs, religious themes, and music for life’s landmarks, including weddings and funerals. He incorporated folk songs from all the ethnic sources directly into the score. His resulting composition is described as a “concerto for orchestra,” and it has five movements: “The Sorrow of Loneliness,” “Waltz,” “Songs About the Sea,” “Dance in the Night,” and “Weddings and Funerals.”

“The Sorrow of Loneliness” starts out appropriately with a lone English horn and a contemplative theme. Soon there’s a lot of company from the other orchestral voices, punctuated by unquiet passages; what sounds like church bells, and the voice of the English horn again. About halfway through this movement, the full orchestra enters, full of sound and fury and an almost film-score colorful surge of trumpets, drums, portentous themes. This fades away to harp and strings and fluttering woodwinds, finally to a tentative harp solo with piccolo and horn calls, ominous underpinnings. Then the full orchestra returns with a romantic, sweeping film-score theme. In the last minute the English horn returns (unfortunately not quite perfectly in tune).

The other movements are also remarkable for their evocation of time and place, and their use of instrumental colors. The “Waltz,” for instance, starts off wistfully and then gets considerably more rambunctious, with swooping string passages, and phrases that start traditionally and then undergo quicksilver changes. Like its fellows, this movement is cleverly and imaginatively orchestrated.

“Songs About the Sea” opens with another wind solo (this time, the clarinet), followed by a wind chorus of a rather exotic theme over a tango-like bass underpinning. The winds play mostly in fourths, giving the music an exotic flavor, and there are evocative solos for the piano and the harp. Again, this sounds like it could be a film score.

The pictorial quality continues with “Dance in the Night,” whose portentous and rather martial opening sounds like preparations for a war. Sometimes the music turns menacing, with offbeat rhythms that recall “West Side Story.” This dance is definitely more athletic than romantic.

“Weddings and Funerals,” the concluding movement, combines what the composer calls “a light and happy funeral song from Madagascar, and a sad wedding march from Sweden. Madagascar celebrates that a soul travels from this world to the next, so a funeral can have a positive feeling. In Scandinavia, in the old days, weddings could be formal and solemn. The Madagascar melody goes through the entire movement, and a very passionate melody from Cuba is placed on top of it. A song from Eritrea is in the middle of this to create rhythmic contrast and the climax is the big, broad Swedish wedding march. The piece fades out with the Madagascar funeral song.”

Ken-David Masur—associate conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and son of the late and legendary podium master Kurt Masur—conducts with great lyrical sweep and the sense of drama these very pictorial pieces require.

Melinda Bargreen is a Seattle-based writer and composer whose career at The Seattle Times began in 1977. Her choral works include the “Norwegian Folksong Suite.” Melinda contributes to many publications and is the author of Seattle Opera’s 50-year history book. She holds B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Washington, and a doctorate from the University of California, Irvine.

This article originally appeared in the September 7, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.


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