One of the highlights of the Stockholm concert season is the annual composer festival organized by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and the Stockholm Concert Hall.
Each year’s festival offers a series of concerts which focus almost exclusively on a single composer, giving audiences a unique opportunity to be fully immersed in the composer’s universe. In its nearly 30 years of existence, the festival has featured some of the greatest composers of our time: Lutoslawski, Schnittke, Gubaidulina, and Penderecki, to name just a few. This year’s festival was dedicated to arguably Sweden’s greatest living composer, Anders Hillborg.
The program opened with the world premiere performance of Beast Sampler. The composer states that the work’s title was inspired in part by the concept of the orchestra as a « sound animal. » The work began with a vortex of sound: unpitched blowing sounds from wind instruments, surging and receding strings, wild woodwind chatter. The music tried to settle into a groove, anchored by a growling contrabassoon. Following a dense forest of string glissandi, imposing brass chords began to give the music a clear shape. However, just when the music began to suggest an assertive conclusion, it retreated into the mist.
The brief O dessa ögon provided a quiet contrast to the opening number. Scored for soprano solo and string orchestra, the music is uncomplicated and beautiful. Soprano Hannah Holgersson sang with poise and grace; her pure tone and clear diction were entirely appropriate for this gentle music.
Written in the early 1990s, the Violin Concerto was the oldest work on the program. Listeners unfamiliar with Hillborg’s music were probably wondering what kind of a genius (or madman) could have possible come up with a piece so wildly creative.
The work began with a simple held pitch from the solo violin. As other instruments joined in, the single pitch expanded into a harmony, suggesting a broad, endless horizon. The soloist began a sprint towards the horizon, soon chased by front desk strings. This scene did not last long, and the music became a carnival: a drunken trombone, wildly braying horns, honking woodwinds. Eventually the soloist wandered into a cadenza, and the piece seemed to take on the feel of a more « conventional » concerto. The soloist tried to introduce a soaring theme, but the orchestra remained on the ground. The carnival music returned, followed by one more dash towards the horizon.
The soloist in this evening’s performance was Carolin Widmann. To say that this work is technically demanding would be a gross understatement. Hillborg asks for both conventional and unconventional virtuosity: queasily sliding unison pitch passages, perpetuum mobile sections with endless streams of notes, Jimi Hendrix-like licks. Fortunately, Widmann’s secure technical ability and fearless playing were more than up to the task; in her hands the music seemed easy.
Exquisite Corpse has become a Hillborg calling card of sorts for the Royal Stockholm PO; the orchestra has performed this piece 15 times (including several performances on tour) since giving the world premiere in 2002. Similar to the Violin Concerto, Exquisite Corpse began with a single pitch, which gradually morphed into a harmony. The sun rises, and three trumpets announce the arrival at the summit. This majestic scene melts away quickly, and the music moves into a flurry of swirling strings and woodwinds. After the music wanders through a dense forest of woodwinds, unpitched percussion make an imposing entrance, setting up an « urban groove » section. Once the music recedes into a shimming string cluster, a quote from Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7 magically appears out of the mist.
Composed for Renée Fleming, The Strand Settings is a song cycle based on texts by the poet Mark Strand. Similar to O dessa ögon, The Strand Settings had a simple, moving beauty, but explored a broader range of expression when compared to the former work. Particularly notable was the somewhat funky, perhaps avant-garde jazz-infused section with prominent double bass pizzicati. Soprano Agneta Eichenholz was the soloist in this performance, and her beautifully restrained performance was memorable.
Overall, this was a highly enjoyable and intelligently constructed « tasting menu » of Hillborg’s orchestral output: the wild energy of Beast Sampler, the unbridled creativity of the Violin Concerto, the seamless transitions between disparate worlds in Exquisite Corpse, and the simple, uncomplicated beauty of the vocal works. Oramo and the Royal Stockholm PO were in top form (the percussion in Exquisite Corpse deserve special mention), providing the strongest and most convincing advocacy for this important music. More please, and soon.