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DateLine Wednesday, 23 May 2007

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Edvard Grieg centenary concert:

Tribute to Norway's adored romanticist

Ajit Abeysekera

SOLOIST: Soundarie David
Pic. Pradeep Jeganathan

MUSIC: The year 2007 is the 50th Golden Jubilee Year of the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka (SOSL). Since the beginning, it's been the only orchestra that has regularly performed western classical music to entertain a limited audience of classical-music lovers.

It has history and tradition but has struggled to survive amidst financial and other constraints. Thanks to a few generous sponsors and a rejuvenated administration with unflagging perseverance and love of music, SOSL continues to move along.

Right at the beginning of this year, SOSL had chalked out a busy schedule of varied events for the Jubilee Year. Unfortunately the very first concert held for the first time at the Kularatna Hall, Ananda College, did not fulfil expectations - notwithstanding a rare appearance with the SOSL of the acclaimed cellist Rohan de Saram.

In my view two things went wrong. First, the printed program had no major work for Rohan de Saram. One can be forgiven for being disappointed that de Saram's only appearance was to be the soloist for Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations - almost like an under-valuation of a great cellist.

Instead of filling the entire second half of the concert with an always-available Beethovian Symphony, many would have loved to hear SOSL and Rohan de Saram at a concerto perhaps of Dvorak, Elgar, Saint-Saens or other.

Second, the acoustics of the Kularatna Hall unfortunately were bone-dry so much so that the warm and mellowed tonal quality of de Saram's cello sounded too abrasive for comfort.

Memorable dedication

If the first concert of the Jubilee Year was nothing to cheer about, the second held at the Ladies' College hall on 30 March 2007 offered something to write about. It was a memorable dedication to the centenary of the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.

Grieg's Holberg Suite was originally composed for the piano and later arranged by Grieg himself for a string orchestra. This work was listed as the opening item in the program as an arrangement for a "cello ensemble".

To begin with, I was totally unacquainted with the term "cello ensemble". Given that mindset, when 11 cellists trooped in on them stage without any other instrument whatsoever, the anticipation was somewhat discomforting; thoughts of a whimsical experiment or perhaps an inferiority stemming from my own ignorance crossed my mind.

All that was resolved when the cellists (many of them looked just in their teens) led by Dushyanti Perera began their revelatory performance. It didn't take too long to realize that a cello ensemble can extend the boundaries of chamber music to a level of richness that an orchestra only is capable of producing.

Though perhaps I might have missed the violins, the seamlessly flowing ripples of high - mid - and base-ranges across 11 players created a shimmering sonic fabric that was remarkable there was warmth and luxury in the blending of harmonies and counterpoint without a hint of over-indulgence.

The opening Praeludium of the Holberg Suite was rendered with panache. Indeed it came across like a sizzling display of unintended aplomb from a well-knit ensemble.

Listening to and concentrating on a five-movement composition of any form can be a bit demanding. But Grieg's suite based on eighteenth century dance forms had such a variety of rhythm and styles that it was easy to share with the players the joy and affection with which it was performed. Some dissonance while accessing the highest notes was perhaps the only aspect of disagreeability that surfaced on occasions.

Dushyanti Perera's ensemble adds a new dimension to Sri Lanka's classical music landscape. I do hope she will sustain and build on it and that it would encourage more senior players to form 'innovative satellites' of ensembles around the SOSL.

Grieg's better known orchestral suite is a re-orchestration of incidental music Grieg composed for Norway's best-known playwright/dramatist Henrik Ibsen when he was adapting his verse drama "Peer Gynt" for stage production.

The challenge for conductor Ajit Abeysekera was to capture and portray the weird, elusive theatrics of Peer Gynt's life and adventures reflected in the vast spectrum of musical mood-paintings inherent in the orchestral suite. And that he did well in his unobtrusive way. I would have preferred a slightly sprightlier Anitra's dance at the same dynamic level.

The repetitive refrain of the final movement (In the Hall of the Mountain King) has had a phenomenal entry into non-classical music and other genres of entertainment to an extent that even the composer's identity is long forgotten. Sadly, the unfettered freedom that catalyses the relentless evolution of popular music-culture often has scant respect for origins of authorship.

Lightning climax

In this context Ajit Abeysekera perhaps had some licence to entertain as he deemed fit. In just about 2 minutes the mythical and malignant confrontation between Peer and the Mountain King's troll in a subterranean castle came to a lightning climax with the orchestra exploding into a rapturous burst.

The second half of the concert was a performance of Grieg's only piano concerto with Soundarie David as soloist. This work enjoys the reputation of being the most indestructible of all piano concertos. Schumannian inspiration, German romanticism, Scandinavian folk motifs and Grieg's impressionistic virtuosity - these were the structural and artistic genes of this beloved work.

Sparkling intensity

The Program Notes stated that Grieg was the soloist at its first performance. My information however is that Edmund Neupert was the soloist at the first performance on 3rd April 1869, with Holger Simon Paulli conducting the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen.

As a matter of fact, Grieg wasn't in Copenhagen at the time owing to musical engagements in Christiania - which is now Oslo, the capital of Norway.

It was my first opportunity to listen to Soundarie David as a solo pianist. The last performance of this concerto that I recall listening to was on 27 October 2001 when Ms Shanti Dias gave a memorable account with flowing lyricism and artistry.

If Soundarie David's sparkling intensity and crushing energy levels flagged her virtuosic skills in the bravura, there was enduring charm in the deliciously lyrical slow movements.

The orchestra gave her wonderful support; particularly with its muted strings in the slow movement. During the tuttis the soloist's body language alternated between participative swaying to time and meditative contemplation; in either mode she anticipated precisely the moment of her next re-entry.

With consummate ease she was outwardly the soloist and inwardly a silent participant in the orchestral passages. She is totally adept at switching roles either as an effective leader or as a valued team-mate.

Soundarie David's versatility is astounding. I believe her heart and soul are entrenched in "Soul Sounds", the popular and talented chorus she leads with indefatigable passion. To perform as a concert pianist at this level demands exceptional discipline and hard work.

And she's being beckoned to pursue postgraduate legal studies that have been another facet of her profile of interests. Soundarie's poise and demeanour convey an attitude of abandon; clearly there seems to be no disarray in handling the internal ferment of a life of diverse demands.

For me, Ajit Abeysekera's conducting of the evening's performance overall was the best I've ever witnessed from him. Even the woodwind players, who have often stood out as SOSL's Achilles' heel, proved that they do have robust lungs that can play with unison and control. SOSL can truly excel and entertain their listeners still better with more self-belief and shared enjoyment of playing together.


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