Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård (b. 1969) has made his mark in the British Isles, particularly, having been Principal Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales from 2011 to 2018. Last autumn he took over as Music Director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. In England, Søndergård has also directed London Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony, London Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonia Orchestra. He has also directed Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Concertgebouw Orchestra. This year he embarks on a tour with Royal Scottish National Orchestra to the United States and makes his Finland debut when he conducts both Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and Tapiola Sinfonietta.
Søndergård was first bitten by the music bug on hearing a band in his home town, Holstebro. He was only seven at the time, and luckily his local library was able to keep him well supplied with records and scores. At age 15, he began taking regular percussion lessons in Copenhagen. His real ambition was, however, to conduct, and he made his breakthrough conducting Poul Ruders’ opera Kafka’s Trial at the Royal Danish Opera in 2005.
Follow Thomas Søndergård on Twitter @tSondergard
Christian Ihle Hadland
Following his recital debut at the Norwegian Opera in 2008, Christian Ihle Hadland (b. 1983) was hailed in the Norwegian press as a pianist who “shows himself as a unique musician whose artistry should be heard on the world’s concert stages”. This has indeed happened, and in 2011 he was appointed a BBC New Generation Artist. He made his HPO debut with Marc Soustrot conducting in November 2013.
Christian Ihle Hadland is known particularly as a Grieg pianist; he has performed the piano concerto by his fellow Norwegian many times in the UK and has recorded works by Grieg for cello and piano with Andreas Brantelid. “Norway is a wonderful place to play,” he says. “You have time to do things, and in your first concert with an orchestra there won’t be 10 critics sitting in the audience waiting to slaughter you. But you have to get out. This counts for all Norwegian musicians. We’re on the periphery, just look at the map.”
William Walton: Scapino
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra commissioned British composer Sir William Walton (1902–1983) to compose Scapino: A Comedy Overture for its 50th anniversary concert, so that despite its name, the piece was never actually intended for the theatre. In it, Walton paints a portrait of a character from Italian commedia dell’arte he had come across in a series of engravings from 1622 by Jacques Callot.
A figure with a hooked nose and a hat adorned with feathers, Scapino was a mischievous jack-of-all trades, a smarmy wheeler dealer whose job was to fix up amorous adventures for himself and his master, Harlequin and to mastermind devious and sometimes even violent misunderstandings, only to make himself scarce until the dust had settled again. Walton’s Scapino has been described as something between Mozart’s Leporello and Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, and he is characterised by rhythmic brass fanfares, pizzicatos and droll, jumpy wind solos.
Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto
Edvard Grieg (1843–1907), Norway’s national composer, studied the piano in Leipzig with a friend of Robert Schumann and there fell in love with that composer’s piano concerto. His own concerto of 1868 was strongly influenced by Schumann’s and was his only large-scale work. (He did actually write a symphony but placed a lasting ban on its performance and it was not discovered until 1981.)
The concerto was an immediate hit and travelled round the world for years. Again and again Grieg polished details in the score, the last time only two weeks before he died. The concerto was in fact so popular that in 1908 it was the first in the world to be heard as a recording, though shortened into only six-minute piece, as dictated by the contemporary recording techniques.
The echo of Schumann is clear from the choice of key onwards, and like his idol, Grieg begins with an orchestral forte. Rather than being an opportunity for the soloist to shine, the first movement is a poetic duet between piano and orchestra before steadily building up to an explosive solo cadenza. The second movement is possibly the most beautiful in all concerto literature, and the finale creates a Norwegian ambiance with halling dances and imitations of a Hardanger fiddle.
Benjamin Britten: An American Overture
The first shots of the Second World War were already echoing across the English Channel when Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) set sail for America. His reputation as a fine composer had already winged its way across the Atlantic and he was soon receiving commissions. The three years he spent in the US and Canada were, however, a trial, for he suffered from acute homesickness and writer’s block. In 1941, he appears to have composed An Occasional Overture as a commission for the Cleveland Orchestra. He later denied this and instead wrote a new piece of the same name. He later acknowledged it, but it was not premiered until 1981, as An American Overture.
Like his Canadian Carnival of 1939, the American Overture is a deep bow to Britten’s friend Aaron Copland, whose style had become synonymous with US music in the 1930s. The orchestration is exceptionally sparse: a plodding bass and brass fanfares evoke memories of a march band, and the shower of bare fifths and fourths is maybe a stylised nod in the direction of the American sound ideal.
Igor Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements
Unlike many of his fellow emigrants, Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) felt quite at home in America and soon became popular in society circles. The father of The Firebird and Rite of Spring, he was a charismatic conductor whose reputation as an eccentric, with his dark glasses, heavy accent and well-fitting suit readily made up for any shortcomings of conducting technique. He always, he claimed, followed the latest trend in composition, be it 12-note technique, jazz, neoclassicism or pastiche. His words nevertheless spoke louder than his actions, for he had nothing against composing film music merely to earn a buck.
Casting his assertions aside, he based his Symphony in Three Movements (1945) on an abandoned film score and called it his ‘war symphony’. In the first movement he describes the scorched earth tactics he had seen in a documentary about the Second World War and the Chinese in the trenches. The music in the second movement was originally to have been for the ‘Apparition of the Virgin’ scene in the film The Song of Bernadette (1943). The finale is his vision of goose-stepping German soldiers, but towards the end the Allies gain the upper hand and the victory parade ends on what can really only be called ‘a commercial chord’.