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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sweden – January 18/19

I had lunch with Per Korsfeldt, out near the offices of the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir (EEKK). Per has sung with EEKK since 1989 and is manager for the choir for quite a number of years now, too.

If you’ve read posts from last year’s trip to Sweden, you know that one of my concerns has been what will happen to the Chamber Choir post-Eric. I think the picture has become clearer and more positive. For the first time, EEKK has gotten some continuing support from the government. This is extraordinarily important, since it makes it possible to plan ahead. Previously, application for funding had to be made every year—followed by the wait to see if it is approved—and, given deadlines, it made it tough to do any long-range planning. This isn’t a large sum of money, but enough to provide a foundation for the administration of the choir and some other things.

As a side note about the name of the choir, if you’re old enough (like me!), you may remember the choir on recordings being referred to as the “Stockholm Chamber Choir.” In Sweden the choir was simply known as the “Chamber Choir,” or later, the “Chamber Choir at the Radio,” but when they toured or recorded, they always used the name, “Stockholm Chamber Choir.” Unfortunately, they’d never registered that name and another enterprising conductor named his choir (and registered it as) “The Stockholm Chamber Choir.” Eric was, understandably, NOT happy, but there was nothing to do about it. So, unlike the Robert Shaw Chorale, Roger Wagner Chorale, or other eponymously named choirs, Eric Ericsons Kammarkör got that name purely through circumstance.

From attending just one rehearsal of EEKK last week, it seemed to me that artistically, the choir is in very good shape. Per confirmed this, saying that he’s very happy with the singers they’re able to draw. A core singer in the choir can earn about a 1/3 salary with the choir and they’d like to see that move to about 50%, but not higher. The problem with moving higher is that some of the fine free-lance singers (who also have solo careers) wouldn’t be willing to give up their solo life, so the level of singers available would actually go down.

The contract with Konserthuset (where EEKK provides the chorus for major choral/orchestral works with the Stockholm Philharmonic and also does one program each year sponsored by the house) means the choir has done projects with as few as 12 singers (one of their domestic tours) to as many as 80. In a way, this means they get to hear and “try out” lots of singers, which is very positive in keeping contact with and developing fresh and new singers. There are also singers (more operatic voices) who will frequently get hired for bigger oratorio projects, but perhaps not for the a cappella programs. It’s a process that seems to work well. A continuing question is the base size of the choir. Eric has most often used 33 (one extra soprano) as his base for both the Radio Choir and Chamber Choir. This allows for two voices on a part in the 16-part divisi that became almost a standard after Ligeti’s Lux aeterna and in so many Swedish works by Lidholm, Sandström and others. And for doing the big works of Reger or Strauss, for example, it allows for the sonority necessary for those pieces. Given financing, the core may have to become 24 singers, but that’s a decision that won’t be made yet and no matter what the core number, as now, the group will expand or contract depending on repertoire demands.

You can find the choir on the web here. The site is only in Swedish, but just click on “kalendarium” and you can see the schedule and repertoire for the choir.

It’s nice to know that Eric’s legacy (or this part of it—and the original, since he established the Chamber Choir in 1945!) will most likely survive, and hopefully, thrive.

Kathryn and I met members of the choir (and orchestra, since quite a few of the Västerås players live in Stockholm) at the City Terminal to catch the bus to Västerås for the concert there. Everyone was in a very good mood and it’s fun to see the choir in this sort of “tour” mode. Several singers were bringing the beer for the trip back—Arne Lundmark says this is a tradition that goes back very far with Eric’s tours). It’s about an hour and 15 minutes to Västerås, with pleasant scenery (at least for Kathryn and me, who’ve been in the city the entire time). It’s a city of 120,000 or so in central Sweden, about 100 km west of Stockholm on the shore of Lake Mälaren.

After unloading and dumping stuff in the concert hall backstage, there was about an hour before rehearsal, so Arne and his wife Birgit took Peter, Kathryn and me to an Italian restaurant which Peter (who’d had rehearsals here Monday and Tuesday) said was the best in town. We did, in fact, have a lovely meal, pasta with chicken and a very nice polenta with ox filet. Conversation turned to food—Kathryn, ever the foodie, asked about favorite dishes from home—and Arne rhapsodized about a dish from northern Sweden, near Piteå, where he’s from, and Peter of a favorite cassarole from Friesland in the north of the Netherlands, where his family originates.

Peter and Arne had to rush through their meal, since it came a bit late, in order to get back for rehearsal at two. We took a little more time and, when we returned, got a tour of the facility by Rikard Gateau, the manager of the Västerås Sinfonietta. The facility is really wonderful (not one you’d see in a town that size in North America), connected to one of the largest conference facilities in Sweden, and the concert hall (seating around 900) has very good acoustics. Practice and ensemble rooms abound and a choir was rehearsing in the small hall when we toured through. In the concert hall lobby itself is a full restaurant, bar, gift shop, and a fantastic coffee, tea, and chocolaterie (which of course we had to visit later: we tried marvelous truffles flavored with Earl Grey tea, calvados, and malt whisky). Rikard is extraordinarily energetic and the orchestra has great support, with a Thursday subscription series that is nearly sold out for 10 concerts each year (they could sell out completely, but want to reserve at least 300 seats for guests and new audience members) and a shorter Friday series that’s also well attended. He has the ambition to take the orchestra from 50% work to full-time, and I’d guess he’d be successful.

After our tour, we met Tamara, Ragnar Bohlin's wife, who' s a cellist in the opera orchestra, but also freelances regularly--here she was subbing as principal cellist for this concert. We chatted a bit about divided family life, since Ragnar is, of course, in San Francisco while Tamara and their two sons (10 and 8) are in Stockholm. The usual tough decisions of two-career families: Tamara is originally from Russia and has now been in the Opera orchestra for 10 years and the children are both well ensconced in school and lessons (one's a cellist and the other studies piano). Tamara can take a leave of absence for a year, so they may well spend the next academic year in San Francisco, seeing if she can get good employment as a cellist and if they can find a good situation for the boys. I don't envy the dilemma!

The concert itself was very well attended, the downstairs almost full (I couldn’t see the balcony) with an enthusiastic crowd. Rikard introduced the concert and asked for a show of hands from the audience of how many were choral singers—at least a quarter, if not a third, raised their hands. This was a full program, so Peter opened with a Schubert Italian overture in D, followed by the Mozart. The first half closed with Knut Nystedt’s Immortal Bach, which begins with a pure statement of the chorale, Komm, süßer Tod, followed by phrases of the chorale sung with different groups of singers holding the notes varying lengths, with resulting dissonances eventually melting into the final chord of the phrase, For this, Peter had the groups spread out around the hall, which was very effective. The performance of Immortal Bach was dedicated to Bror Samuelsson, who died last fall. Samuelsson was an original member of Eric’s chamber choir in 1945, but soon after moved to Västerås and was instrumental in educating many generations of choral singers—and an enormous influence in Sweden. He was also a composer—I recorded the Ave maris stella (one of his Tre latinska hymner) with Choral Arts on our Scandinavian Christmas CD (available very reasonably now at CD Universe), a lovely CD, if I do say so myself!

The second half was the Haydn, of course, which even more energetic and joyful, with soloists doing a particularly beautiful job tonight.

After that, a short gathering with wine and beer in the orchestra’s room at the concert hall, then nice trip home (more beer available then, too, of course!). Special goodbyes at the end for Peter, who heads home briefly before going with his family to Holland for two weeks for a production of Bach and Bach relatives (and some Mendelssohn, too). Do check out Peter’s website for information on his conducting activities and repertoire.

The choir also bid goodbye for awhile to Anna Zander, one of the altos, who is due in about 5 weeks, she looks very pregnant!—and was one of the soloists in the Mozart—she has a beautiful voice and sings very musically. She’ll be on maternity leave from the choir for about a year.

For me, time to say goodbye to Peter, who’s not only a talented musician, but also a truly nice guy, very warm and open. Nice to meet him and watch him work.

I now begin two weeks of my own work with the choir: next week four rehearsals on Pizzetti’s Requiem (which I discovered, to my surprise, the choir’s never done), Penderecki’s Stabat mater and Agnus Dei, and Arvo Pärt’s The Beatitudes. Should be fun!

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