Into the Light

Two summers ago, the Oregon Bach Festival orchestra, chorus, and soloists presented the premier of Sven-David Sandström’s Messiah, a commission based on Handel’s work of the same name. Present and active throughout the Festival, Sandström attended rehearsals, tweaked the score, presented talks and participated in symposia.  He is a cordial, engaging man, eager to talk about his craft and his background; we participants enjoyed his residency.  At one point, in speaking of his compositional procedure, he mentioned, almost off-handedly, that, as a Swede, he had been privileged, throughout his career, to have at his immediate disposal the finest choirs in the world, who could sing anything he threw at them.  I say off-handedly, because it has become almost a cliché, in the realm of serious choral music, to refer to the “Swedish Choral Miracle”-- the development, since World War II, of a phenomenally high-level choral culture, based in Sweden but spreading throughout the Scandinavian countries and east to Finland and the Baltic republics.  Sandström’s Messiah proved to be very difficult for everyone involved; but the composer never apologized, never offered to rewrite anything to aid performance:  he knew that, if we couldn’t handle the work, choirs back home in Europe could.

Many reasons come to mind for the existence of this pocket of choral excellence: the region’s relative isolation and strong drive toward various expressions of nationalism; historically high rates of literacy; the prevalence of good choral music in the Lutheran church; Sweden’s relatively wealthy, unscathed emergence from the war, and subsequent egalitarian distribution of that wealth; the phonetic structure, especially of the Nordic languages; an inspiring natural landscape; the seriousness and high level of personal discipline and community involvement amongst the populations.  Something about this combination of elements, inspired by strong individuals such as conductor and teacher Eric Ericsson, inspired, and continues to inspire, singers, conductors, composers, to produce work of mind-bending competence and difficulty, and often of great beauty.

In general, Scandinavian and Baltic choral music has a neo-romantic tonal base, though it often ventures very far from this base.  Generally (entirely, in Chorale’s program) it is performed a cappella, and consequently requires a narrow tonal focus from all singers, to accomplish intricate harmonic changes clearly.  A “boyish” sound, however, is not desirable:  singers are from time to time asked to sing with a fuller sound, and the sopranos and altos to utilize a characteristically “feminine” timbre.  Mostly-- singers are to sing with great discipline, and to bury their own vocal quality in the cool, somewhat impersonal texture characteristic of the music.  When not at its best, the sound—the entire approach—can become, frankly, boring:  a perfect, bland surface, which becomes tiresome.   At its best, though, this music, like all Northern art, contrasts light and dark, warm and cold, high and low, with a vocabulary which suggests much that is unsaid-- almost a musical representation of the chilly blond beauty of Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite actresses, implying far more than they at first seem; beauty and danger in at least equal parts.

This is our program, at least at this point, August 1:

Edvard Grieg;  Fire Salmer, Opus 74

1. Hvad es du dog skjön

2. Guds Sön har gjort mig fri

3. Jesus Kristus er opfaren

4. I Himmelen

Nils Lindberg: Den signade dag

Bach/Nystedt/Sandström:  Komm süsser Tod

Jan Sandström:  Gloria

Otto Olsson:  Jesu dulcis memoria

Knut Nystedt:  Audi

Knut Nystedt:  O crux

Einojuhani Rautavaara:  from Vigilia



Herra Armahda

Arvo Pärt:  Bogoroditse Djevo

Urmas Sisask:  Benedictio

A challenging program for us, though all of it unimpeachably beautiful music.  I’ll write more about it once our rehearsals commence (September 7) and I hear how it sounds.  Concerts November 18 (Hyde Park Union Church) and November 19 (St. Vincent DePaul, in Lincoln Park).