Topical works by Lera Auerbach and John Luther Adams inspired by the Arctic Environment.
Global warming and rising oceans were not issues of concern to Debussy as he composed his symphonic sketches for La Mer in 1905. In contrast, this is something which occupies the minds of Lera Auerbach and John Luther Adams − artists who are both inspired by Arctic conditions − in these highly topical works. The programme kicks off with Beethoven’s Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. In Arctica, Auerbach herself is the soloist, and is accompanied by Joshua Weilerstein leading the orchestra and the Oslo Philharmonic Choir. Arctica has been commisioned by the Oslo Philharmonic together with National Geographic and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington.
Claude Debussy’s (1862−1918) favourite harmonies and ability to create evocative musical moments rich in association are revealed as soon as silence is broken by harps and damped strings at the beginning of the composer’s La Mer. Then, everything is about the colours, sounds and light evoked in Debussy’s rich and nuanced writing for orchestra, with his extensive use of pentatone and whole tone scales, and his freeing of dissonant chords from the rigid framework of functional harmony to sound free, in and of themselves.
Debussy named La Mer “three symphonic sketches for orchestra”. The three sketches stand independently, but thematic material binds them together, as does the structure, with its two weighty outer movements and a lighter middle movement. La Mer can therefore be conceived of as lying between a symphonic poem and a programme symphony. Debussy is often mentioned − rightly or wrongly − in the same breath as the Impressionist painters, and there are few more impressionistic works than La Mer, where rich impressions of the sea are communicated subtly, suggestively and colourfully.
The work had its world premiere in Paris in 1905, where it was ill-received, like many other works by the composer. Only later has it proved to be one of Debussy’s most popular orchestral works, and is considered today to be one of the masterpieces of the first half of the 20th century.
Just as Debussy was fascinated by the sea’s movement and light, Lera Auerbach (b. 1973) was inspired by ice and the frozen conditions of the Arctic after a journey there. There she met the explorer and marine expert Enric Sala, and was engrossed by all he had to tell. On commission by National Symphony Orchestra and the National Geographic Society, she wrote Arctica for choir and orchestra. The work was first performed on 30 March 2019 in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC. Auerbach, who is Russian-American, has been a distinct figure and unique voice on the international music- and cultural scene in the last few decades. She has composed music for opera, ballet, orchestra and choir, and has published a series of works of both poetry and prose. Auerbach is a pianist herself, and will take part in this performance in Oslo.
Similar circumstances and the same theme also inspired John Luther Adams (b. 1973) − not to be confused with the American composer John Adams (b. 1947). J.L. Adams has spent great parts of his life in Alaska, and has been inspired by Arctic landscapes. He describes his own music as being “deeply inspired by nature, and having a great empathy for it. Through long-term listening to the subtle resonances of the northern soundscape, I hope to to explore sonic geography - the space between place and culture … between environment and fantasy”. The Light that Fills the World contains clear post-minimalist elements, and Adams seems to be inspired by his American composer colleagues Philip Glass and Steve Reich. As we encounter Adams’ slow-moving, broad soundscape, we might easily envisage the gigantic, Arctic plains and feel the ice cold air filling our ears and nostrils.
While Debussy, Auerbach and Adams have let themselves inspire by concrete sensory impressions and natural surroundings, Ludvig van Beethoven’s (1770−1827) sources of inspiration were of a more mythical nature when he composed the ballet music to Prometheus. According to the ancient Greek myth, Prometheus steals fire from the gods, giving it to the humanity, and many claim that you can hear Prometheus himself fleeing heaven with the gods at his heels in the hectic work. In the overture, and in the ballet music moreover, we witness Beethoven’s freshest and most inpired and colourful writing for ochestra. The fiery overture is the best-known part of the ballet music, and is often used as an independent concert work to lend fire to the programme.
Early on, the Oslo Philharmonic’s repertoire had a marked German-Austrian weight to it, and some years passed before Claude Debussy’s music gained a foothold in Norway. Although certain works by Debussy were sporadically performed also during the first seasons, it was particularly in the 1930s that the French composer’s music began to be played more frequently in Oslo. La Mer was performed for the first time in 1934 under Principal Conductor Olav Kielland’s direction. Many of the conservative critics, led by Per Reidarson, were not very impressed with Debussy’s style:
Here we find many interesting sounds and instrumental effects which might often appear allusive − like a collection of sketched stage sets and masks. But they aren’t tied together in any kind of holistic picture, and one gets a sense of a purely material, mechanical sound illustration − with no trace of humanity in the tones. How much greater isn’t the artistic value in for instance, the Storm in William Tell, or Grieg’s Stormy Evening on the Sea! − far more allusive, and furthermore, a pleasure for ear and mind. Yet, Debussy knows his own handiwork and his own system, one can hear this, albeit not always with pleasure.
(Per Reidarson, Arbeiderbladet, 30.10.1934)Read more
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