Portland Symphony Orchestra
June 21, 2016
by Christopher Hyde
Mainers love their Grieg. Merrill Auditorium was sold out Tuesday night for a performance by the Portland Symphony Orchestra of his “Peer Gynt” suites 1 and 2, plus modern Norwegian music of note.
Music Director Robert Moody was called away for personal reasons and assistant conductor Norman Huynh filled in admirably, both in the Grieg pieces and in supporting violinist and composer Henning Kraggerud.
The “Peer Gynt” suits are arguably the best known of classical music, right up there with “The Moldau” and the “1812 Overture.” They are charming, melodic, sad and ferocious, and the PSO played them as if they were brand new.
Like the “1812 Overture,” “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” from Suite No. 1, surprises every time by the inspired craftsmanship of its composition. It builds perfectly and uses orchestral color like Rimsky-Korsakov in one long, and tremendously exciting, crescendo. The last work on the program, it brought the audience to its feet.
The program began with the premier of an orchestration of Ola Gjeilo’s “Meridian” by Delvyn Case Jr. A highly rhythmic piece, it is an ostinato, built on a repeated musical phrase, like Ravel’s “Bolero,” which is directly quoted at one point. The ostinato, introduced by the piano, becomes submerged in the orchestra, which initially plays the melody over it, and finally transforms everything into itself.
The work is tonal, hypnotic and well orchestrated, and was given an enthusiastic response by listeners who had come to hear Grieg.
Kragerrud opened his violin performance with a lovely, and virtuosic, waltz by his great grandfather, Christian Sinding, a Norwegian composer and friend of Grieg who deserves to be better known. His work is certainly romantic, but it also has a cutting edge.
It was followed by excerpts from Kraggerud’s recent composition, “Equinox,” for violin and orchestra. To quote from a jacket blurb: “Equinox comprises four concertos – Afternoon, Evening, Night and Morning – each of which consists of six postludes, making 24 in all. These postludes are written in 24 keys and depict 24 hours and 24 time zones, taking the listener on a kaleidoscopic tour across the world and time, and journeying musically through the circle of fifths, beginning in C major. The postludes are by turn joyful, mournful, effervescent and heart-wrenching.”
They are all of that, and as inventive as Bach in “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” I don’t know which ones he played (there was no mention of “Equinox” in the program) but there was a long line at intermission waiting to buy a CD of the complete set.
At one point Kraggerud turned his back to the audience and presided over the violin section with the loudest notes I have ever heard emanating from that instrument. In an encore, the muted violin played over strumming from every section of the strings, sounding rather like a Balalaika orchestra.
One take-away from the concert-—every composition showed the influence of
Greig in some way or another. It was as if dissonant or 12-tone music had never existed. Which was fine with this audience, and perhaps many others.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.