Who doesn’t love a good premiere?
It’s historical. I must say Maestro Lindberg is an outstandingly enthusiastic person, and I bought my ticket for this concert many months ago when they were on sale. The Taipei Symphony has been consistently impressive, and six or so months ago when I saw Tchaikovsky’s third piano concerto and Allan Pettersson’s fourth symphony on the program, I couldn’t resist.
Maestro Gilbert Varga has a certain energy. His speaking, his conducting, his handshakes, his applause, he’s always on, and that kind of enthusiasm is dangerously infectious. The first time I went to see him conduct, I found his little impromptu pre-concert lecture a bit out of place, but the more I heard and saw of him, the more I enjoyed his incredibly endearing passion for what he was doing.
Maestro Lindberg is of identical manner, a person whose passion you could listen to all day, and his description of Allan Pettersson made me even more excited about hearing the work. He described him as a “Swedish Mahler,” a man who died thirty years ago, having lived an incredibly tragic, rough, life, who wrote seventeen, count them seventeen, symphonies and who remains, as did Mahler, largely not understood, and rather neglected. His passion for the music and his excitement to have the opportunity to share with us this work that had never before been played in Asia made me very eager to hear it.
The first part on the program was Bernstein’s Three Dance Episodes from On the Town. Jazzy, smiley, short, and fun. The concert hall was probably about half empty when the lights dimmed, and I felt a little bad about this… but after the Bernstein piece, conducted freehand, no baton, while the piano was being rolled into place for Tchaikovsky, a few dozen latecomers were let into the hall and shuffled to find their seats.
Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto is, while I’d argue a rather odd concerto, a famous, shining pillar of the concert repertoire. The second, to me, lacks the initial, overwhelming, perhaps almost saccharine charm of the first, where the piano virtually disappears for the second movement, etc. The third is a single movement affair with a strong back-and-forth between piano and orchestra, a monumental cadenza, again, not of the same immediately lovable nature as the first, but having an undeniable musicalness that I haven’t quite digested yet. Single movement, posthumous, all that. It completes the Tchaikovsky set, all three concerti heard live. That’s something.
But even more something-er than that is the Asian premiere (for the continent! the whole continent!) of Allan Pettersson’s fourth symphony, out of seventeen. I was pretty excited to talk to a gentleman after the concert who knows a hell of a lot about classical music (thanks, if you’re reading), and I got to thinking about the list of ‘composers who’ve written a hell of a lot of symphonies that are almost all unknown.’ Aside from Alan Hovhaness and Leif Segerstam (with 68+ and a ridiculous 270+ to their names, respectively), Myaskovsky was the one to come to mind, especially since (spoiler alert!) he’ll be showing up next week. 27 symphonies, that man, and expected by many in the early days of the 20th century to be one of the most enduring composers of the century. Nope. But then there’s Allan Pettersson, who wrote seventeen symphonies, a rather high number, relatively speaking. The description of Pettersson’s life, and of his current status as the potential next Mahler, the undiscovered genius, and Lindberg’s potential Bernstein to his Mahler.
We (or me and the aforementioned gentleman) read about premiers on Wikipedia, the roaring success of Beethoven’s seventh (or Shostakovich’s [or his first]) or The Firebird, or the lukewarm reactions to many other symphonies now considered to be gems of the repertoire. On the other hand, there are people like Kalinnikov, who we talked about a few weeks ago, who the world (at least the English-speaking portion of it) has seemed to agree to forget. To be at one of these premieres (granted, not a world premiere) is a historical-ish thing, and maybe that loser who dropped what sounded like a SOLO cup full of marbles or the old man who walked out exactly during the quiet ending will be written in some article somewhere and I’ll say “I was there.”
In any case, most, if not all, of Pettersson’s symphonies are written in a single movement. Maestro Lindberg shared with us the heartbreaking story of Pettersson’s life in poverty with a highly religious mother and an alcoholic abusive father, and the brother who made a violin for him out of a cardboard box and metal wire. That is to say, ‘feel-good’ is likely not a phrase that will often be used to describe his works.
It was a work that, as we were told, was dedicated to his mother after her funeral, a work that embodies her religious, tender self with rich, tender hymn-like melodies, and violent, tumultuous clashes of anger and eruptions of chaos; guess who that is. It’s like the most frightening domestic-violence version of Peter and the Wolf, but with only two characters: mommy and daddy. With eight percussionists, contrabassoon, bass trombone, tuba, there’s plenty of firepower for real soul-crushing, ear-bruising passages, but it was actually used sparingly. Aside from a few truly shocking bursts of bass drum and clang (that gave my neighbors quite a jolt), there wasn’t a lot of fire-and-brimstone-ing in this work.
Aside from the association with Mahler from the situation in which Pettersson finds himself in the concert hall, there’s no similarity to the men’s works. At a few points, the person who came to mind was Shostakovich. The repetitive, persistent, never-dying nature of works like the Leningrad symphony came to mind every now and then, a towering, ever-present, soul-crushing shackle of a melody, but not as severe in this work, at least. Percussive tinkles, clicks, flitters from piccolo and clarinet, sul ponticello strings, and other tiddly bits sounded like a child dragging his toys down the hall, but trying to stay quiet, a long, dark, hollow, cold hall, one that’s seen terrors and sudden bursts of anger and fright contrasted with tender, serene moments of love, conveying an incredible sense of unease at the “split personality” nature of the work. Talk about unprepared modulation, both tonally and atmospherically. The sense of structure was gone, in a lot of ways, turning sudden corners, to find who knows what? It encompassed a surprise and uneasiness that was tiring to say the least, but also a shocking sense of extreme beauty at turns that would be pure and heavenly if it weren’t only to mourn its own brevity.
A few people walked out, one almost angered, it seemed. And granted, like Lyapunov or Myaskovsky, it might take a few cracks at the piece to open it up, but there’s surely something to this man’s work, and while on the surface level, in the moment, not everything is gripping (moments of silence, or hollowness; not all big tunes and pretty passages, by any shot), when you zoom out and get an aerial view, it’s probably quite something to see, but I’ll need another pass.
I was so eager to get a chance to shake the hands of both Lindberg and Pöntinen, but for the first TSO concert I can recall, there was no autograph signing. I’d been excited, too, because I’d thought of one question to ask each of them (and also because there was a much smaller crowd. As follows:
- Mo. Lindberg, what directed your attention toward Pettersson’s symphonies, and which works would you suggest as a good introduction to his oeuvre?
- Mr. Pöntinen, what about the third concerto of Tchaikovsky made you want to learn it, and what do you love about it?
Okay, so those are compound questions, but simple enough to answer succinctly, even at an autograph-signing table. But it didn’t happen.
In any case, I was pleased to have the rare experience to hear two works I’ve never once heard in my entire life, one by one of the most famous composers in classical music history.
And I will definitely be looking more into Allan Pettersson’s works. Thank you Mo. Lindberg and the TSO. See you next time.