Uniting the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra’s recent programme of Copland, Hovland and Sibelius, seemed to be an exploration of life. From Copland’s charming portrait of early American settlers, via Egil Hovland’s viola-concerto-as-abortion-protest, to Sibelius’ religiously tinged evocation of nature and flying swans, the orchestra under conductor Dalia Stasevska gave triumphant performances of not always great music.

Dalia Stasevska © Jarmo Katila
Dalia Stasevska
© Jarmo Katila

The Oslo Philharmonic played the opening admirably, the warmth of the lower strings’ sunrise offset by the coolness of the clarinets, but Stasevska seemed unwilling to get out of the way of the music. Even when communicating small-scale musical ideas, her conducting was very active, with distractingly large arm movements. Still, she bought out Copland’s Technicolor orchestration, with beguilingly played woodwind solos and rousing bouts of film score-like melodiousness. Particularly effective was the delightfully, ridiculously grandiose finale.

Where Copland’s pioneer idyll provides a charming, colourfully orchestrated look at the lives of early 19th-century American settlers, it is another sort of life that is examined in Egil Hovland’s 1998 Viola Concerto, ‘Song to the Unborn Child’. Hovland, a student of Copland, started his career in the 1950s as a mild-mannered modernist, before shifting his musical language towards ever-more accessible melodies and increasingly religious subject matters. An active church musician, much of his music was written for liturgical use – some 70 of his hymns are included in the Norwegian hymnal – and this easily accessible, song-like idiom is very much apparent in his Viola Concerto.

Hovland’s Viola Concerto is attempt to write a large-scale instrumental work using the same sort of musical material he used in his hymns, yet he also channelled into it his political and religious beliefs. The title of the concerto, ‘Song to the Unborn Child’, refers to Hovland’s fierce opposition to abortion – he even ran for Norwegian parliament in 2005 on an anti-abortion platform. The piece opens sombrely, even elegiacally in the orchestra, before making way for the fiendish scales and trills of the solo viola. Despite soloist Lars Anders Tomter’s intensely committed playing, the doom and gloom of the opening felt rather relentless. The concerto quickly started to sound like a series of hymns and brass chorales played back to back, punctuated by a trill or some double-stopping in the viola. The cloying sentimentality and general dramatics of the ending gave further evidence that a viola concerto is perhaps not the best medium for protesting abortion.

Contrasting the humanity of Appalachian Spring and Hovland’s Viola Concerto, came the natural wonders of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony. The symphony opened with gently glowing horns, out of which sprang wistful woodwind solos. Despite the underlying melancholy, Stasevska imbued the music with a certain playfulness that quietly morphed into a tragic grandeur. The symphony underwent several revisions before the final version was ready in 1919. Most significantly, Sibelius rewrote the ending of the first and beginning of the second movement, seamlessly joining the two movements, thereby creating one continuous movement. By gradually increasing the tempo, he created a swirling, almost dizzying transition, the gradual tempo increase continuing all the way to the triumphant ending.

The whirling tempo of the first movement seems to have spilled over to the calmer second movement – although Stasevska never let the music sag, it felt just a touch too frenetic in the slower sections. As in the first movement, the woodwind playing – particularly the oboes – was exemplary, yet the whole thing felt just a little rushed. Sibelius got the inspiration for the third movement of the symphony by watching 16 swans circle his house in Ainola. He immediately wrote down the main theme of the movement, the so-called Swan Hymn, with its majestically undulating parallel thirds. Starting with a flurry of excitement in the strings, the third and final movement proved more judiciously paced, with golden-sounding horns, the Swan Hymn triumphantly ringing out.