Slipped Disc makes no secret of a long-standing fascination with the Swedish composer, Allan Pettersson, a symphonist shunned as much in his own country as abroad. So when we heard that conductor Christopher Russell was preparing a California performance of the 7th, we asked him for an account of the run-up. Here’s his report, with exclusive video and stills. Take it away, Chris, with exclusive rehearsal footage:
I don’t remember why I bought the DG recording of Allan Pettersson’s 8th Symphony at Tower Records when I was about 17 and 18 years old. Maybe I heard it on the radio. Maybe as I was looking at the record, I read the liner notes on the back and was intrigued. Maybe it was the cover with the bright green background and a profile of the composer looking at something far away. Maybe it was a combination of all of them but whatever it was I bought it that afternoon.
Soon after putting it on, I was gripped by the drama of the whole work especially by those two incessant and haunting rising half notes that start a few minutes in. This was a composer that I had to know more of. And indeed I did. Over the years I got to know all 16 of his symphonies. Soon afterwards I bought the Dorati recording of the 7th. I wasn’t sure that anything could beat the 8th but this one was just as first rate.
Conductors normally have wish lists of being able to conduct certain pieces. I have many on that list but one of them was a Pettersson symphony. So when I was planning my repertoire for 2012-13, I realized that the conditions were right for me to program one of them on my March 5 concert with my excellent orchestra at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California. The question was whether to do the 7th or the 8th. I got copies of both scores and listened to them several times. After a while, I came to the conclusion that the 7th is the one where Pettersson got it “just right” from beginning to end. It’s no wonder that it’s the most performed of his symphonies.
Not however in the United States. When I decided to program the piece, I researched Pettersson performances in the US and got some surprising facts:
1. This would be the West Coast premiere of this great work finished in 1967.
2. It would be only the second US performance of the 7th.
3. This will be the first performance of any of his symphonies in the US in 29 years.
4. No Pettersson symphony has ever been played west of Chicago.
So performing this takes on a special importance for me and my players.
We’ve had three rehearsals on the work as I write this. Rehearsals have been a bit different from other works mostly because I’ve been speaking a lot about Pettersson to the orchestra since no one, of course, had ever played anything by him and most had never heard of him. I also spend time speaking about the dramatic journey that he takes us on. Much of this is through the transformation (or not) of the melodies and also how his harmonic language is an integral part of the drama.
To prepare for this essay, I asked a couple of orchestra members take anonymous comments from the other players. Reaction has been mostly positive but certainly mixed. Some said it was “frustrating” and “demented”. Others are still not sure what to make of it with one saying that “understanding this piece is incredibly exhausting”. On the more positive side, some caught the mood of the piece comparing it to a Greek tragedy, recognizing “amidst tragedy there are moments of beauty…[T]hat sense of beauty is more powerful that I normally experience.” Other comments have called it “awesome”, “wonderful” and “hauntingly beautiful”.
I’m glad to hear it’s making an impact and don’t mind the negative comments. Perhaps as we start running and eventually perform the piece, it’ll come more into focus for those unsure about the work. One thing I can guarantee is that performing Pettersson is something the orchestra and I will not soon forget.
The concert’s next Tuesday, right here.