Over the past few seasons, conductor Joshua Weilerstein has become a yearly fixture in the Oslo Philharmonic season, with programmes of pieces on the outskirts of the standard repertoire, in often interesting combinations. In a beguiling programme of pieces written in the years leading up to World War II, however, Weilerstein proved ineffective, providing only a veneer of occasional musical insight, despite very good orchestral playing.

Joshua Weilerstein © Felix Broede
Joshua Weilerstein
© Felix Broede

Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht’s savagely satirical The Seven Deadly Sins tells the story of two sisters sent away by their family to raise enough money to build a little house on the Mississippi river. The two sisters, Anna I and Anna II, are actually two sides of the same person, one intensely pragmatic, the other deeply emotional. Their travels take them to seven different American cities, and in each, they encounter one of the seven deadly sins: sloth, pride, wrath, gluttony, lust, greed and envy. However, in Brecht’s satire of capitalism, the sin is what keeps the sisters from earning money: choosing food over keeping the terms of a contract, choosing money over love, or justice over a job.

Tora Augestad as Anna seemed to have a two-pronged approach to the music, wavering between operatically inclined storytelling and cabaret-like aloofness. However, she often did not quite go far enough in either direction, so her attempts at innuendo during “Pride” fell flat, not helped by Weilerstein’s rather fast tempo. Likewise, the anger and pure anguish at the beginning of “Envy” didn’t quite catch fire. Still, the mock-glorious march that immediately followed was perfectly mock-jubilant, completing the descent into moral corruption. Augestad was amplified, which, considering the less-than-ideal acoustics of the Oslo Concert House, was in all likelihood a good idea.

As the family, tenors Magnus Staveland and Thorbjørn Gulbrandsøy, baritone Halvor Melien and bass Olle Holmgren sounded nice when singing as a quartet, even though their diction was unclear, not helped by a not very singer-friendly acoustic and variable amplification. On their own, they were somewhat more variable. Singing the torturously high part of the Father, Staveland tended to drift sharpwards in the higher-lying passages. Holmgren, singing the part of the Mother, sounded underpowered in his lower register, and the part generally seemed to call for a heftier voice.

Bookending The Seven Deadly Sins were two orchestrations of Bach and Brahms by Webern and Schoenberg, respectively. During a short introduction onstage, Weilerstein referred to Webern and Schönberg as “loving interior decorators” let loose on the house that is the classical music canon. Anton Webern’s 1935 orchestration of the 6-part “Ricercare” fugue from Bach’s The Musical Offering is almost kaleidoscopic in its various timbres, a swirling mass of orchestral colours, yet Weilerstein made it all sound rather drab. It was plodding along well enough, but the balance was off, with few attempts made to draw out individual voices. The brass was also rather too loud, underlined by a rather flatulent-sounding muted trombone.

In the hands of Weilerstein, Arnold Schoenberg’s 1937 orchestration of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor appeared as a series of more or less musical events; they certainly occurred, but they never left much of an impact. The opening of the first movement Allegro was highly suspect, with the first horn sounding underpowered and playing a slew of wrong notes, and throughout the piece, the balance issues from the Bach-Webern “Ricercare” persisted. While the woodwind playing was uniformly excellent, they – along with the strings – were overpowered by the often too loud trombones and trumpets. The second movement Intermezzo, despite fine orchestral playing, was lacking any kind of intensity or tension.

While the performance started to turn interesting in the martial middle section of the third movement, high woodwinds excitedly egging on the music, it slid back into nice-sounding complacency towards the end. Even Schoenberg’s idiosyncratic inclusion of the xylophone and glockenspiel didn’t help the fourth movement, originally a rollicking Rondo alla Zingarese, a Gypsy rondo. I couldn’t help but think that Weilerstein and the orchestra were simply going through the motions. Only in a short passage towards the end for solo violin, viola and cello, without interference from the conductor, did it actually sound as if the music had something to it.

Weilerstein’s penchant for off-the-beaten-path repertoire is certainly commendable, and the Oslo Philharmonic seems to like him quite a lot, as evidenced by how well they play under him. But no matter how much he is liked by the players, he still needs to bring something to the music. What Weilerstein described in his introduction as loving interior decoration, instead appeared bleak and sloppy.