Salonen meets Mattei
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We encounter heroes and anti-heroes in the name of love in Gustav Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a wayfarer), sung by the world-famous Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, and in the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra’s performance under its conductor laureate Esa‑Pekka Salonen of Béla Bartók’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin and Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra is known worldwide as one of Europe’s most versatile orchestras with an exciting and varied repertoire and a constant striving to break new ground The multi-award-winning orchestra has been praised for its exceptional, wide-ranging musicianship as well as collaborations with the world’s foremost composers, conductors and soloists.
Permanent home of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra since 1979 is Berwaldhallen, the Swedish Radio’s concert hall. In addition to the audience in the hall, the orchestra reaches many many listeners on the radio and the web and through it´s partnership with EBU. Several concerts are also broadcast and streamed on Berwaldhallen Play and with Swedish Television, offering the audience more opportunities to come as close as possible to one of the world’s top orchestras.
“The orchestra has a unique combination of humility, sensibility and musical imagination”, says Daniel Harding, Music Director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra since 2007. “I have never had a concert with the orchestra where they haven’t played as though their lives depended on it!”
The first radio orchestra was founded in 1925, the same year that the Swedish Radio Service began its broadcasts. The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra received its current name in 1967. Through the years, the orchestra has had several distinguished Music Directors. Two of them, Herbert Blomstedt and Esa-Pekka Salonen, have since been appointed Conductors Laureate.
Esa-Pekka Salonen, Conductor Laureate
Esa-Pekka Salonen’s restless innovation drives him constantly to reposition classical music in the 21st century. Since 2020, he is the Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony. From 2008 to 2021 he was the Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor for London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, where he is now Conductor Laureate. In London he launched the award-winning RE-RITE and Universe of Sound installations which have allowed people all over the world to step inside the orchestra through audio and video projections. Salonen also drove the development of a much-hailed tablet app, The Orchestra, which gives the user unprecedented access to the internal workings of eight symphonic works.
Salonen is Conductor Laureate for both the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He was Music Director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1985 until 1995 and he was the Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1992 until 2009. Salonen co-founded the annual Baltic Sea in 2003. Salonen is also a composer and from 2015 to 2018 he was Composer in Residence at the New York Philharmonic. In 2020, he was appointed an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) by the Queen of England. For the 2022/23 season, Esa-Pekka Salonen is the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Composer in Residence.
Peter Mattei, baritone
In the winter of 2020, baritone Peter Mattei sang his first Wozzeck, the title role of Alban Berg’s opera, at the Metropolitan in New York. In January, 2020, he also performed Schubert’s Winterreise with pianist Lars-David Nilsson at Carnegie Hall in New York. Last season, the same duo went on an acclaimed Nordic concert tour with Winterreise, which led to an album recording as well as a TV version for SVT.
During 2020, Peter also appeared in the title role of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at both the Metropolitan, and at Wiener Staatsoper. The role gave him his international breakthrough in Peter Brooks’ production at Aix-en-Provence, and remains one of his favourite roles. He has since performed it at prominent venues, such as the Royal Swedish Opera, the Scottish Opera, the Opéra National de Paris, and the Teatro alla Scala.
Peter made a sensational debut performance as Amfortas in Wagner’s Parsifal at the Metropolitan in the spring of 2013. The following season, he saw yet another success as Wolfram in Tannhäuser at Staatsoper Berlin. Among his many other roles are the Count in Le Nozze di Figaro, the title role of Billy Budd, Don Fernando in Fidelio, and Pentheus in Daniel Börtz’ The Bacchae, directed by Ingmar Bergman at the Royal Swedish Opera.
Concert length: Approximate concert length: 2 hours including intermission
BÉLA BARTÓK: Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin
The pantomime ballet The Miraculous Mandarin was the third and last of Bartók’s major compositions for the stage after his one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle and the ballet The Wooden Prince.
The Miraculous Mandarin proved that not only was he a master of the efficient use of the orchestra, but also that he had absorbed the folkloric elements of his native Hungary as well as the latest avantgarde trends from Paris and Vienna. His powerful musical intellect fused these elements into a personal and extremely expressive style.
The pantomime is based on a play by the Hungarian author Melchior Lengyel, whose writing tends to be described in terms of sex, lust, psychosis, violence and horror. The play is the story of how a mysterious Chinese man is lured into a garret in a Western city by a girl who has been forced to prostitute herself.
The narrative moves between natural sexual desire, civilized courting and perceived perversion. This is something that Bartók is able to convey in his rich, chromatic and wildly colourful music.
The work caused a scandal at the premiere in 1926, and for a long time it was usually the short version, which Bartók had begun before he completed the ballet, that was performed.
It is a frightening and violent story set in a brothel. The curtain rises, and three villains enter with a girl. The three men are introduced by a jerky, chromatic figure in the strings. They find no money in her home, so they tell her to stand by the window and attract customers. A solo clarinet plays as she approaches the window.
She lures three men to her room, the first is an older man whose comical courtship is illustrated by trombone glissandi.
The second is a shy, good-looking man, represented by an oboe and English horn. Neither of them has any money, so they are quickly thrown out by the villains.
The clarinet grows wilder when the girl returns to the window the third time. Now she attracts a Chinese mandarin, who is introduced by a quasi-oriental theme in the trombones. His face reveals no feeling, apart from the fire in his eyes as he keeps staring at the girl. Although she fears him, her dance becomes increasingly sensual. When he tries to take her in his arms she runs away. A fugue section in the strings, woodwind and brass becomes frenetic when he gives chase. In the end the gangsters attack the mandarin and rob him. The ballet ends with him being killed, but this sequence has been removed from the concert version.
Text: Andreas Konvicka
GUSTAV MAHLER: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a wayfarer) was Mahler’s first song cycle, written when he was Assistant Kapellmeister at Kassel Opera House in 1884-1885. The moods and the choice of subject are characterised by his unhappy and unrequited love affair with the soprano Johanna Richter during that period. The poems, which he wrote himself in winter 1884 and set to music the following year, express strong feelings dominated by despair and grief. His hopes for good fortune are also glimpsed, but come to naught. Mahler used his entire expressive palette, and the work is highly personal, despite being inspired by Schubert’s song cycles Die schöne Müllerin (The pretty miller girl) and Winterreise (Winter journey), which are also about unhappy love stories. Mahler reused themes from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen for his contemporaneously composed first symphony, in the same way as Schubert used material from his Lieder in his chamber‑music works.
The first song – Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (When my darling has her wedding day) – is sad and tragic, but at the same time somewhat ironic. The young man has been rejected by his lover, and the anguish of the vocal part contrasts with the orchestra’s intimations of the happy wedding celebration in the background.
In the pastoral Ging heut’ morgen übers Feld (I walked across the fields this morning) the singer is greeted by the verdant beauties of nature. The birds are singing, the sun is shining and the flowers are flourishing, but the young man is wondering whether he will ever be able to thrive again.
The dramatic third song – Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer (I have a shiny knife) – is probably the most gruesome song Mahler wrote, and it is a sharp contrast, to say the least, when it is thrown straight in our face. Everywhere the young man is reminded of his beloved – a feeling like a glowing dagger in his chest. Desperate and reckless, he feels a raging despair and a desire to end his pain.
The final song – Die zwei blauen Augen (The two blue eyes) – is a redemptive epilogue in which the young man feels compelled to leave home. He bids his loved one farewell, sets off into the dark night and experiences a feeling of great solitude. When he falls fast asleep under a lime tree, whose flowers come floating down over him, his grief is transformed. Everything is fine again – things are all in order once more!
Text: Andreas Konvicka
HECTOR BERLIOZ: Symphonie Fantastique
Berlioz was almost twenty-seven years old when his first major work, Symphonie fantastique, was first performed in Paris in 1830. He was inspired by the mass scenes of early 19th century opera and drama, but above all he was fascinated by the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, whom he had seen as Ophelia in Hamlet. He fell passionately in love and began to court her, unsuccessfully to begin with. That is the biographical background to the work, which has the subtitle Épisode de la vie d’un artiste.
The symphony is unusual in that it has five, instead of four, movements, and thematically Berlioz refers to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (also in five movements and in the middle a pastoral scene with thunder). The principal theme from the first movement, which focuses on the two lovers, returns throughout the symphony. Berlioz called it an idée fixe, it can be seen as a precursor to Wagner’s leitmotiv.
The symphony portrays a musician who has taken opium in his despair over an unhappy love affair, and he falls into a feverish sleep full of nightmares.
In the first movement he remembers how empty his life was before he met his beloved. When she appears in his dream, the music becomes intense and passionate.
In the second movement he is at a great ball. Here the music is exquisitely orchestrated with only high woodwinds, horns, strings and two harps. A few times the waltz theme unexpectedly changes key when he glimpses his beloved in the crowd.
The middle movement is a pastoral scene. The peace and beauty of the countryside with shepherd’s pipes, bird song and nostalgic lethargy is only interrupted by the thought of his beloved. Then thunder can be heard in the distance – a metaphor that symbolizes the spiritual torment of humans.
It all turns into a nightmare when he dreams that he kills his beloved in a jealous rage and is condemned to death. A sombre march accompanies him to the scaffold to the sound of loud brass, cornets and low trombones. The beloved’s theme is repeated as the blade of the guillotine falls.
This is followed by a witches’ sabbath with horrible sounds, clattering bones (when the strings play with the stick side of the bow), piercing howls and loud laughter as ghouls and witches are gathering for his funeral. The beloved is present too, and her theme is played obscenely by the soprano clarinet. Resounding bells introduce the Catholic doomsday sequence, the dies irae (day of wrath), and all comes to turbulent end.
Text: Andreas Konvicka
About the concert
Romantic programme music may be the subject of debate, but music that tells a story is certainly exciting. For Esa-Pekka Salonen’s return to the Radio Symphony Orchestra he has selected three works that do just that.
The young Gustav Mahler worked as Assistant Kapellmeister at the opera house in Kassel, where he fell head over heels in love with the guesting soprano Johanna Richter. After a brief and upsetting love affair she left him to his stormy emotions, which he channelled into four poems. He initially scored them with piano accompaniment, only orchestrating them ten years later. In Stockholm’s Berwaldhallen Peter Mattei interprets Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen – a Mahlerian minidrama depicting a spurned lover wandering around the world in an attempt to find peace of mind in nature. Mahler aficionados will recognise two of the songs, as the composer used their thematic material in his first symphony.
In 1827 Hector Berlioz saw the Irish actress Harriet Smithson play Ophelia in a Paris production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and his life was never the same again. To say he became obsessed is putting it mildly. After many unanswered letters and years of writer’s cramp caused by his great passion, he laid bare his bleeding heart in his Symphonie fantastique – a work in five movements about an artist burning with desire and the self-destructive ardour of love.
To Berlioz’s disappointment Miss Smithson did not attend the premiere, but when she heard the work two years later it is said that she recognised his genius. One story has it that he threatened to take his life if she did not become his. Be that as it may, they did get married. Their marriage was brief and not particularly happy, but Berlioz saw to everything for Smithson, and to this day they lie buried together at Montmartre Cemetery in Paris.
Béla Bartók’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin rather depicts the rawer sides of love, in a brutal plot full of sexuality and violence. Using a dancing girl as bait, three tramps in a slum lure passers-by into a trap with the intention of robbing them. When a Chinese mandarin falls prey to them a dramatic course of events ensues, with the robbers attempting to overpower the mandarin in various bestial ways. The orchestra illustrates this with caustic strings, noisy woodwind, growling brass and orchestral special effects.
“This resounding belching, farting, squeaking and shouting, which is without parallel in any music before it, is put together without recourse to any method or system. Nothing is rational, yet the music is nevertheless supported by a fundamental inner logic and feeling, as Bartók was able to hear everything in his head when he composed,” says Esa-Pekka Salonen about the work, which is one of his favourites.
The Miraculous Mandarin was composed during a period of violent disturbances in Hungary, and in 1926 it was premiered in Cologne as a ballet, but after a single performance it was banned on moral grounds. The orchestral suite from the ballet was premiered a few years later.
Text: Anna Hedelius
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