Saturday, June 18, 2005

Bergen Concert Review

Bergens Tidende, 12. juni 2005 (The Bergen Times)

Happy encounter with strong American ideals

Impressions of Norwegian culture, but something more, too

by Espen Selvik (translated by Karen Hansen)

St. Olaf College has established itself in its sphere as one of the leaders in the USA; that is something we Norwegians ought to take note of with pleasure. The ties to the homeland have always been strong, and it is an event when St. Olaf College offers band (symphonic band instrumentation), choir and symphony orchestra in the same concert. The program was well chosen, stage changes went quickly, and the sections were not too long.

The St. Olaf Band has splendid forces including all the special instruments and sonority hardly any Norwegian bands approach. At the same time, this section was a little monotone; I missed the truly quiet music that creates good contrasts and doesn’t play for effects alone.

At the same time, the director’s own “The Soaring Hawk” had some good touches of originality. The St. Olaf Orchestra also offered good qualities, and as an example George Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture” really took off like a shot. Pleasant and warm string sound, good soloists and an interpretation characterized by great musical vitality reigned.

Director Steven Amundson communicated sensitively with the musicians and created fresh and extroverted interpretations. My favorite, however, was the St. Olaf Choir. With a fine mixed choir and young, but cultivated voices, Anton Armstrong has developed an ensemble of truly high level. Bach’s demanding “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” was charmingly lively, even if the wide vibrato cost a little in distinct enunciation.

The Pentecost hymn “Velsignede Morgen” from Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” was however one of the concert's definite high points. The phrasing was brimming with life and warmth, and the sound was muted, but extremely beautiful and effective.

“Sanctus” by Frank Martin and “Lux Aurumque” by Eric Whitacre were two other memorable works that were presented in an exemplary manner. An encore was inevitable, and the choir responded with a gripping version of “Norge, mitt Norge.”

The band, orchestra and choir have definitively appropriated Norwegian repertoire and interpretive practice; and at the same time the ensembles have fascinating additional qualities. St. Olaf College uses large forces, something that gives the sound fullness and breadth. Here at home we are not always faithful to such an ideal.

Another asset is the directors’ definite artistic leadership. They are highly competent people who don’t just lead, but rather communicate in a truly effective and appealing manner. In so doing, they lift the amateurs’ performances at times up to a professional level. A third factor is the blending of respect for their Norwegian origins with the will to still make their own artistic choices. Because of that, Norwegian music doesn’t harden into hackneyed interpretation, but rather gives an impression of something more. This was a concert both to reflect upon and to delight in.