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Monday, November 12, 2007

Stockholm 2007 - Week 3

February 19, 2007
Stockholm, Sweden

Week 3

Monday was another rehearsal with Fredrik Malmberg and RK. This rehearsal was more focused, the first hour and a half being spent on the Petrassi Nonsense songs. For those who don't know this set, these are challenging and the entire time was spent rehearsing slowly and softly to lock in tuning. Certainly those of you who know the Swedish choirs have heard their fantastic intonation--this isn't the only reason it's so good (superb matching of vowels and control of vibrato are a huge part), but a willingness to patiently work at slow tempi and softly (so one can hear!) to lock tuning is another important part. After the break, the rest of the time was spent on Luciano Berio's 'Cries of London.' This is an immensely challenging piece, with many sections being done by either solo singers or part of the choir (first written for the King's Singers, it was revised in an 8-voice version and performed by the London version of the Swingle Singers, who did quite a bit of Berio's music), so it's the most complicated to rehearse. More on that for Wednesday's rehearsal. Kathryn isn't attending many of these rehearsals, but writing, drawing and doing her own exploring of Stockholm during this time.

Tuesday morning I had a lovely meeting with composer Thomas Jennefelt. Thomas has written some wonderful choral music (many will remember his dramatic 'O Domine') and it was good to catch up with him on his latest activities. Thomas has also long been associated with Eric's Chamber Choir, first as a singer (he is a fine baritone) and then as the choir's President. It's a challenge to maintain such a professional choir as a free-lance ensemble and the board is dealing with the eventual transition, post-Eric. They already have fairly regular guest conductors with the choir--Fredrik will do a production of French baroque music with them later this year, and the Dutch conductor Daniel Reuss (who was conductor for several years of Berlin's RIAS Chamber Choir) will do a performance of Stravinsky's Les Noces. They also are the resident choir at the Stockholm Philharmonic's concert hall, not only giving some of their own performances there, but providing the choir for major works--we'll he ar a Brahms Requiem with an expanded version of them there next week. But the survival of the Chamber Choir once Eric is gone is not a given, and something for real concern.

That evening we went to Uppsala to hear a rehearsal of Orphei Drängar, the truly wonderful male choir. OD, as it's called, constituted the "bookends" for my first visit to Sweden for the month of April in 1989: when I first arrived, Eric was doing a short tour with them, so I was invited along--they put me up in the same hotels, I ate meals with the choir, attended their rehearsals and concerts, etc. And at the end of the month of April were the 1st of May celebrations, which in a northern country are a major event heralding spring and the end of short and cold days. Uppsala, about 45 minutes north of Stockholm, is really a university town, and the university is one of the oldest in Europe. So at the end of that month I was the guest of Eric and Monica at a number of events: sherry at the university's magnificent library, after which the President of the University goes out on the balcony to announce to thousands of congregated students that spring has officially begun (after which there is massive partying); OD's spring concert, or Serenade, which is a relatively light program, followed by a dinner (constantly interrupted by traditional Swedish songs which they all know by heart, each accompanied by a toast and tossing down a 'snaps' with a beer chaser--famous Swedish baritone Håkan Hagegård and his girlfrind at the time, American soprano Barbara Bonney were also guests); and dinner at the castle with the governor and about 15 other people. Kathryn also visited an OD rehearsal with me on our first visit to Sweden together after we got married in 1996 and attended (and sang along at!) the 'old boys' luncheon-reunion in 2002, so for both of us OD has much resonance and good memories!

It also began to snow heavily when we arrived in Uppsala for the Tuesday OD rehearsal (we got there around 4), so we ended up eating dinner at a pub ("An English Pub with an Indian Kitchen") and enjoyed chicken tikka masala while watching the snow fall. We then walked through the snow (which was about 6 inches deep) past the Cathedral, which looked fantastic in the light with the snow falling, and over to the Hugo Alfvén Hall, which is a really wonderful rehearsal room belonging to OD. We were greeted by several different people, given copies of the music, and also chatted with Fredrik Wetterqvist, who was the cultural attaché to the ambassador in Canada and came out from Ottawa to a Pro Coro concert one year. He's now Director of the Department of Press Info and Cultural Affairs for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

At any rate, the rehearsal was the third one (out of about 8) for Mats Nilsson, who is one of three candidates to succeed Robert Sund when he retires in 2008. The other two are Folke Alin, who is the long-time accompanist and assistant conductor for OD, and Folke's wife, Cecilia Rydinger-Alin--I don't know how they're dealing with that one between them! It was also interesting that Folke (who, with Cecilia, are part of the same "generation" as Mats--really the last generation from Eric's time teaching at the conservatory--and are mid- to late-40s) was accompanying the rehearsal. I was a bit surprised that they wouldn't have another accompanist for both Mats and Cecilia's concerts, but not so. Mats' program is one of the more serious ones of the year for OD, and a challenging program, with music by Ligeti, Lidholm, Jan Sandström, Javier Busto, etc., plus traditional Swedish music such as that of Hugo Alfvén, the conductor of OD before Eric took over in 1951. It's always interesting to hear work in progress, so the famous OD sound was not always in evidence as they worked on difficult and unfamiliar music--one has to remember that this is an amateur choir, although an extraordinarily good one--but will certainly be there once they really know the music. It's truly a gorgeous sound. If you get a chance to hear them on their North American tour in October/November 2008 (Robert's swan song), don't miss it. They're hoping to have a concert in Edmonton, already have one set in Vancouver, B.C., would like one in the Seattle/Tacoma area, and should be in San Francisco and Los Angeles as well.

Wednesday was another RK rehearsal, much of the time with small groups of the choir rotating between several rooms and conductors working on different music from the program, Fredrik working on the Berio, of course. Fredrik asked me to be one of the conductors tomorrow, so I'm not sure exactly what piece or pieces I'll be working on, but will find out and do my best to help out. Afterwards we met with Gunnar Andersson for dinner. It was (as always with Gunnar) a wide-ranging discussion about music and choirs. Gunnar was for many years the Producer for the Radio Choir, not only doing organizational work, but producing and editing recordings (he has a fantastic ear and knowledge of repertoire) and being intensely involved with the artistic planning of the choir. He's also a fine singer, who sang with both the Chamber and Radio Choirs and a small male ensemble called the Lamentabile Consort (Gary Graden was also a member). Since leaving the Radio, Gunnar is working some with Eric Westberg in Piteå in the north of Sweden, as a free-lance producer for Eric's Chamber Choir and others in Sweden, Denmark and elsewhere, and singing with various choirs on a free-lance basis as well. We spent a lot of time discussing the very real challenges facing Swedish choral life right now and Gunnar is a bit pessimistic. I can't argue, as I've seen some of the evidence myself during this visit, but more about that when I've had more time to hear and process more. There is certainly a risk that the "Swedish Choral Miracle" I wrote of is in danger, at least in part.

Thursday was work with RK; for the first hour and a half I worked a half hour each with 3 different octets from the choir, primarily on two movements of the Petrassi Nonsense for better pitch accuracy, but also on the Rossini Toast pour le nouvel an just to drill a bit and make the French flow better (Fredrik has asked them to sing this one from memory as well, so they need the repetition). The RK singers are great to work with and it was nice to help out in whatever way I could. The rest of the rehearsal was about one half hour on one movement of the Berio, which is starting to come together very nicely. Fredrik has also brought in a stage director friend who will do some work on staging the pieces in a more dramatic way. Should be fun! The last half hour was spent on some smaller repertoire, so I went next door to listen to the rehearsal for the Brahms Requiem with Eric's Chamber Choir (expanded to 60 voices). The rehearsal was led by one of the basses in the choir and not a lot of rehearsal was needed, since most of the choir has sung it many times, and they should sound magnificent.

Friday we went to Uppsala for a day-long workshop with the title, "Swedish Choirs will Sing -- But What?" Organized by Stefan Parkman (former conductor of the Danish Radio Choir, Swedish Radio Choir, and a guest conductor with professional choirs all across Europe) and Gunnel Fagius (a musicologist) of the Choral Centre at the University, in a way it was to explore where Swedish choirs have been and where they might be going. Kath was going to spend most of the day wandering through town and took off for her own adventures. The workshop opened with Stefan doing an interview with Eric about his role in Swedish choral life. I should also say that the workshop was all done in Swedish (of course), which meant that I had to really concentrate to follow the discussions. With someone like Eric, I could understand about 75-80% of what he was saying, since I knew most of it already (context is everything). With a few others later, I would say more like 50% or less, particularly as the day w ent on and I got tired! Following a brief break, Gunnel followed the same procedure with Gunnar Eriksson. Gunnar is now 70, although one wouldn't know it: I hadn't seen him since the summer of 1990, when I did the bulk of my research for the dissertation and he looked little changed. Gunnar lives near Gothenburg, on the Swedish West Coast, and I spent 3 days with him at that time, exploring the music of Swedish West Coast composers during the day and going to a local jazz festival at night. While Gunnar studied with Eric, he has never really cared about the "Swedish sound," but developed a unique way of programming, with improvisations connecting different works, and has many arrangements of both old music new, plus a method of improvising in a contemporary style. He's also been influenced by jazz (which many Swedes love), the music of Macedonia and Cuba, the music of the Danish composer, Per Nørgård, and expressed those over the years with his old Gothenburg Chamber Choir and his still-current 12-voice Rilke Ensemble. He gives very popular workshops, not only in Sweden, but all over Europe and also in Cuba and South America on his way of teaching a choir to improvise. It was also great to talk to him at the break and catch up with what he's doing. Just before the break, one of the highlights of the day was Gunnar and Eric sitting down at the piano, Gunnar playing secondo and Eric playing primo (as Eric said, "my left hand doesn't work so well anymore"), improvising a jazz version of "The Sunny Side of the Street." If you've ever seen Eric in his heyday, you know that watching him sit down at the piano during a rehearsal break, improvising jazz, is a very special thing to hear!

During lunch I got a chance to greet other old friends who were there: Bo Johansson (conductor of the Adolf Fredriks Girl Choir--we'd heard Bo had a mild stroke about a month ago and were happy to see that he seemed almost unaffected), Anders Colldén (who had a much more serious stroke about a year ago--Anders taught conducting at the Conservatory and was a church musician at the Oskar Church), Anders Eby (who is Professor for choral conducting at the Conservatory and long-time conductor of the Mikaeli Chamber Choir), Gunnar Andersson, and others. Afterwards, there was a panel discussion, with Anders, Bo, and six others (conductors, a journalist, composer, etc.) each offering their perspective on where Swedish choral music might be going, with discussion afterwards by the audience as well. This was where (especially after Anders and Bo spoke), my comprehension went down to 50% or less, as discussions went further afield and I got tired. Stefan also asked me to come up and say a few words from my own perspective, which I did very briefly (and in English). The day ended with Eric conducting everyone in a Swedish standard, David Wikander's "Kung Liljekonvälje." We ended up on the train home with the "Bo Club," Bo Johansson, Bo Nilsson (a composer) and Bo Ejeby (a publisher who has in his catalogue, among other things, all of Gunnar's music). We sat with Bo Johansson and had a very short trip back to Stockholm, as Bo is great fun to talk with, and caught up on what we've been doing.

Saturday was a wonderful concert at St. Jacob's with Gary Graden (as singer/MC), Steve Dobrogosz (jazz pianist and composer), Anders Paulsson (soprano sax and composer), and Sebastian Rilton (vocal percussion/bass/arranger and leader of "Rilton's Vänner" or Rilton's Friends, an excellent 5-voice vocal jazz ensemble a la the Real Group). This was Gary stepping out of his usual role as conductor and putting together a program (called "Sing Along") with his friends, which included spirituals (for example, Gary and Sebastian did a great riff off of Moses Hogan's "I'm gonna sing 'til the spriit moves in my heart"), some of Steve's original compositions (including 3 great gospel songs), other original pieces, and lots of audience participation, including teaching the audience to sing (and move to) a South African song. If you heard Gary's choir in Minneapolis at IFCM, the spiritual at the end where Gary did the solo gives you an idea of his style (or for my Pro Coro friends, who got to experience Gary as a guest conductor last year). It was a fun, involving concert--definitely not usual St. Jacob's fare--and the audience of something over 300 loved it. An experiment that was a big success. As Gary said, he may do a piece or two at the end of a Jacobs concert where we can "let down our hair," but has never done a whole program like this one. Great fun and I'm sure different versions of it will happen again in the future.

Later that evening was a great party at Gary and Maria's house (a little outside Stockholm), with a lot of their friends, including all the performers, and people of all ages from a girl about 5 years old who charmed everyone, to Gary and Maria's own kids, children of friends and neighbors, and all the rest of us. A party at Gary's and Maria's always has music, so it began with Bo Hansson (a composer and classical guitar teacher who's written several pieces for Gary's choir) doing three guitar duos with Eric (never got his last name), a guitarist originally from Holland who settled in Sweden some time ago. They're preparing for a Swedish Radio production and played some Sweelinck transcriptions (by Eric), an original piece by Bo, and a Fauré transcription.

After that it was dinner, a marvelous Boeuf Bourguignon prepared by Maria, Gary, and mutual friend Joy Hill from England. Joy being there was serendipitous for us, as we met her for the first time at a party at Gary's during our visit in 2002, when Joy came to Sweden for the first time because of an interest in Swedish choral music and the symposium given by Gary, Eric and me in Uppsala. We became good friends and visited Joy and her family when we traveled to London in 2004 and I did a master class at Roehampton Univeristy (where Joy taught at the time). Joy also conducts the Chamber Choir of the prep department at the Royal College of Music and had been doing some workshops in Lithuania (she's done a lot in the Baltics since 2004) and was coming home--Gary convinced her to stop over in Stockholm on her way home. It was the first time we'd seen her in person since 2004, so a great thing for all of us.

After dinner, Gary instigated more music, including the two of us singing some Stephen Foster songs (wow, the original lyrics are incredibly racist!), Steve Dobrogosz accompanying Gary doing Randy Newman (and Gary does a pretty fine Randy Newman impression), and also Steve accompanying one of the boys, around 15 or so, in "Bridge over Troubled Water" (how many 15 year-old boys do you know who'd stand up in front of a group of adults and kids his own age and do that?). Anyway, simply a marvelous evening and we were the last to leave at 2 in the morning, taking a cab back to our apartment.

Sunday was a lazy day early (partly because of getting to bed around 3), followed by an absolutely amazing dinner prepared by Eva Wedin at her apartment in Bromma (a suburb where I lived during the summer of 1990, when I did most my research) along with Arne Lundmark (manager of the Radio Choir) and his wife, Birgit. Another great evening with lots of conversation about a wide variety of topics.

Anyway, we're blessed to have amazing friends here in Sweden. The coming week (and report) will be shorter, as we leave Friday for a week in Kristiansand, Norway for a visit with Kathryn's youngest sister, Heidi, and her family. Heidi did a study abroad program in her next-to-last year as a Norwegian studies major and ended up meeting her future husband, Trygve Trædal, there; he teaches piano at the Conservatory in Kristiansand. So Heidi's lived in Norway nearly 20 years and they have two really wonderful teenagers, Elisabeth and Christoffer. I actually knew Heidi before I knew Kathryn, as she was a student at PLU my first couple of years and went on one Choir of the West tour when we took a chamber orchestra (she's a violinist).

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