Edvard Grieg is to Norway what Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber are to the United States. But even though the Norwegian composer was prolific enough to keep a festival of his music afloat, most people outside Norway are familiar with only a handful of his works: The Holberg Suite, “Peer Gynt,” some of his “Lyric Pieces” and, of course, the Grieg Piano Concerto.
In Norway, Grieg is a musical hero, worshipped by musicians from Bergen and Oslo to Trondheim. His musical image and imagination have spread far beyond the borders of his native land, but his countrymen want his music — all of his music — to be better known around the world, and one of the best approaches they’ve found has been by way of an Edvard Grieg Festival in Florida.
The Artist Series Concerts has, with the help of the festival’s director, Dr. Sylvia Reynolds Eckes, jumped on this Scandinavian bandwagon and brought a special series to Sarasota with lectures, concerts, visits by Norwegian dignitaries and a musical smorgasbord of Grieg’s music that is so vast, it’s become a Sarasotan’s musical feast.
But the waters of Grieg run, not only deep, but also murky.
Take the printed program of the first concert Friday. Featuring more than two dozen pieces of music, with print smaller than a Norwegian elf, every musical participant announced the program would not run in the printed order. In fact, there wasn’t one selection that followed the printed page, to the point that most of us were confounded and confused, wondering what it was we were hearing.
Worse, there was no intermission included on the printed page so, when the houselights came up halfway through the program, murmurs of surprise and wonder ran through the Historic Asolo.
Still, with all the confusion and musical mystification the program caused (why bother printing it if you don’t follow it?), there were some magical moments in the evening, starting with baritone Alan Dunbar and pianist Gregory Martin. They performed two sets of songs with great finesse and beauty. Very Lieder-like in their sound, one couldn’t help thinking of Schubert. Dunbar, whose voice is perfect for this kind of intimate song, created great realms of color within a small canvas and by explaining what the texts were about (they were sung in Norwegian), managed to convey their meanings through the beauty and texture of his voice.
Martin, the pianist, stayed on stage for a set of piano pieces that were startlingly as impressionistic as they were romantic. They included the familiar “Goblins’ Bridal Procession at Vossevangen.” (If I hummed it, you’d know it.)
After the uncertain intermission, a small group of singers from Gloria Musicae took the stage under the direction of Joseph Holt for a remarkable set of choral works scored for unaccompanied women’s voices. Because of the intricate harmonies landing on unisons among the voices, this is difficult music to sing, but the women of Gloria Musicae were so polished and immaculate in their pitches the music took on a gorgeous shimmer.
They were joined by the men of GM for a glistening performance of Grieg’s “Ave Maris Stella,” followed by some psalms for mixed chorus with baritone soloist Njal Sparbo.
Even with the programmatic confusion, it was an interesting evening, and we’re grateful to the Artist Series Concerts for bringing us music that we probably would never hear under any other circumstances. A little Grieg goes a long way but, in retrospect, it does open one’s ears to a new language of music-making — and we’re appreciative of that.