The New York Scandia Symphony’s marathon concert yesterday at Trinity Church was exhausting yet exhilarating for musicians and audience alike, reaching a level of intensity envied by most players and rarely experienced by the average concertgoer. On one level, the members of the ensemble are spoiled rotten. While other orchestras roll out the same tired warhorses night after night, the Scandia dedicate themselves to obscure and rarely heard masterpieces by Scandinavian composers. Which means at least one premiere of some sort at every concert. The price of such riches? Hard work, but this one was well worth being out of breath for (as several in the orchestra literally were by the end).
The concert had a clear trajectory. They started with just a string orchestra playing a selection by late Romantic Danish composer Poul Schierbeck that sounded like a cheery organ prelude rearranged for strings (which it well could have been – Schierbeck was an organist). They then brought up guest cellist Jonathan Aasgaard for the Prayer by Ernest Block from his suite From Jewish Life. Broodingly cinematic in its Rachmaninovian sweep, it gave Aasgaard a chance to show off a strongly sostenuto, almost hornlike attack. There’s a movement afoot among cellists to hold notes as strongly as possible – the decay on a cello string is almost instantaneous, after all – and whether or not that trend might be part of his agenda or just his usual M.O., it resonated powerfully. It was even more notable as he swooped and dove over the full orchestra on the U.S. premiere of Hungarian/Danish Romantic composer Franz Neruda’s Cello Concerto, a somewhat martial dance theme taking on more of an apprehensive tone as it grew.
Another work from the Danish Romantic school, Emil Hartman’s Cello Concerto moved through an understatedly heroic theme with echoes of Cesar Franck, to quieter, more introverted, hypnotic territory, to a surprisingly upbeat dance of a conclusion. With considerably more solo parts for cello, it was more of a showcase for Aasgaard than the previous two pieces and he met the challenge head-on, climbing to a ferociously slithery, chromatic solo cadenza toward the end of the first movement.
They closed with Carl Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony. With its constant, tidal tempo shifts, motifs that make their way around the orchestra and its distant sense of dread, it’s mightily difficult to play, but conductor Dorrit Matson kept a mighty hand on the tiller, maintaining as much ease as there can be while directing such an uneasy composition. In their hands, it took on the shape of cautionary tale about the perils of complacency: snooze and you lose. It opened with a seemingly carefree splash of bells, orchestra playing a rather mundane series of permutations until suddenly the violins gave off a muffled scream. And suddenly those silly bells made sense: they were an alarm, and nobody was paying attention! That violin motif returned again, and again, if never quite as fully horrified as the first time around – horror becomes less horrifying the more you get used to it.
The second movement, dubbed a “humoresk” by Nielsen, has been called a parody of modernism, and that could be true (it also could be a portrait of a clueless, selfish narcissist, or a political statement – it dates from 1926, you figure it out). Scored for just horns and percussion, the drums were clearly having fun stepping all over the melody, whenever they were needed least. As random as the time seemed, Mattson swung it to make sure it was not so that there wasn’t a millisecond lost when some rhythm reemerged. So the juxtaposition of the strikingly astringent, modernist third movement made quite a contrast, cellos somber, violins aflutter over the horns’ atmospherics. The concluding movement took on the feel of a Mediterranean aria filtered through the lens of Debussy, a careening, out-of-focus, dizzyingly rhythmic series of frozen-rain motifs, from a nail-biting waltz to almost a parody of a march to the sarcastic honk that ended it all cold. The audience didn’t know what hit them: the orchestra knew exactly what had.
The Scandia roll out their string quartet for their next concert, 5 PM on April 18 at Our Savior of Atonement, 189th St. and Bennett Ave. in the Bronx for an intriguing bill of Grieg, Frank Foerster, Zack Patten, C.E.F. Weyse, Langgaard and Nielsen. Admission is free.