Quirky Quantity or Questionable Quality?

(cover image by Aldric Rivat)

Move over, Hovhaness (67ish), Haydn (100+), Bourgeois (114), Dittersdorf (120ish), and even Rowan Taylor (265).

You thought Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies, Niels Viggo Bentzon’s 24, Myaskovsky’s 27, Mozart’s 40+, or others held some record for most prolific symphony composer? Well, none of these guys hold a candle to the current record holder (with the exception of Taylor, who was at one time in recent memory the record holder.)

Meet Leif Segerstam. Perhaps in years past, only the more devoted listeners or concertgoers (largely fellow Finns) would have been familiar with him, but nowadays, even the more casual classical music converts may be familiar with videos like this:

Yes, that Santa-esque conductor who begins yelling at and/or with the orchestra in a now-(in)famous performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is Leif Segerstam, a very well-known conductor and musician.

He has as of the time of this writing (last updated in October of 2017) completed 316 symphonies.

He was born on March 2, 1944 into a musical family in Vaasa (where Toivo Kuula was born), but moved to Helsinki when the composer-to-be was still very young. In school, with the Helsinki Youth Orchestra, he played violin and viola, and debuted as a concert violinist before the age of 20, and had his debut as a conductor the following year, in 1963. Within just a few years of that, he had been invited to conduct both the Finnish National Opera and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

He studied at both the Sibelius Academy (violin, piano, conducting) and earned his diploma in conducting in 1963, whereafter he went to Juilliard, graduating in 1965. He was chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic from 1995-2007, and has held posts with some very notable orchestras. I have some of his recordings of works by various composers, and must say I quite enjoy his recordings.

However, that’s not what we’re here to talk about today Here in the middle of a series on Finnish composers, Segerstam can’t go without a mention, and since I’m not featuring any of his compositions, I figured the least I could do was share some of my thoughts (more likely questions) about his work.

Full disclosure: I’ve listened to very little of his output, but videos like this do not do much to encourage me to dig very deep…

Let’s just appreciate a few things about this video, like the fact that they’re in a dining area of someone’s home, or that chimes are being played with spoons, that there are two keyboardists, one of whom is the composer, the other wearing earplugs. Wait for Segerstam to point to the cameraman or someone near them, right about here, and more singing starts.

I don’t (really) mean to disparage any of this. I’m extremely amenable to being convinced that there’s something of compelling interest in just about anything. And really, who wouldn’t be excited about the prospect of over 300 delightful symphonies to crack into and enjoy?

But from the look of it, I won’t be doing that anytime soon. Wikipedia says that

Most of his symphonies last for about 20 minutes, are formed of a single movement and are performed without a conductor…. He developed a personal approach to aleatory composition through a style called “free pulsation” in which musical events interact flexibly in time,[5] and this composition method is persistent throughout his œuvre…

You may be curious to know how many of these symphonies have actually been performed or recorded. Wikipedia says that “More than a hundred of Segerstam’s symphonies have been performed,” but that statement has been marked as “citation needed.” Even then, that’s still only a third or so.

Which brings us to the big question.

It’s a question I’ve really had about aleatoric works for quite some time, and it’s essentially one of the value or (lack of) meaning in recording a work that contains aleatory as a significant element. Discussions of this get philosophical fast, but if a work is inherently meant to be different with every performance, then doesn’t the recording of that evanescent event defeat the purpose of the nature of the piece? I feel like it does.

But there’s another question, too, and it’s just of the sheer volume of output. People like Haydn and Dittersdorf composed music for specific occasions, at someone’s whim, for an event, or else to have another new product to appease the masses and have on shelves.

But if these works are being composed faster than they can be performed, then how much of a surplus is there? More interestingly, to me, is how much of the freedom of interpretation or “free pulsation” with each of these works makes them similar and different? Big question mark there.

Overall, I’ll say that Segerstam is respected, perhaps even revered, as a real musical talent. He apparently basically plays (quite well) every instrument in the ensemble, is a gifted conductor, but when I asked a very knowledgeable, professional Finnish music person about his compositions, he said “Let’s not talk about that.”

In total, Wikipedia tells us that aside from Segerstam’s 316 symphonies, he’s written 30 string quartets, 13 violin concertos, 8 cello concertos, 4 viola concertos and the same for piano. I have far more questions about than comments on Segerstam’s own compositions for now, and can’t really get around to digging into that very intimidating oeuvre, but I’d love to hear your comments, if you have any, about the charms or joys in any of his pieces. For now, though, I’ll be satisfied with him (not yelling) at the podium, and before we leave, here’s his 288th symphony, performed by the Turku Philharmonic on October 6, 2016. There is, as discussed, no conductor (wild to see for such a large ensemble), but the composer is at the piano stage right. Enjoy?


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