Edvard Grieg centenary concert:
Tribute to Norway's adored romanticist
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.