The Oslo Philharmonic, like many orchestras around the world, can often be accused of not paying enough attention to new music. However, to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Norwegian Society of Composers, the Oslo Phil is kicking off the New Year with three world premières in as many concerts. Jan Erik Mikalsen's Saan proved, by turns, a meditative and ferocious exploration of orchestral sonorities, which found at times surprising parallels in the other programmed pieces.

Han-Na Chang © Luciano Romano
Han-Na Chang
© Luciano Romano

Conductor Han-Na Chang started the overture to Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila at a dizzying pace, setting off a flurry of strings playing that was so fast, I was surprised not to see any violins catch fire from all the friction. The overture has become one of those orchestral showpieces often only played to see who can play it the fastest, and Chang’s tempo could certainly compete in that category, but she also brought a sense of line and clarity to the playing – however thrilling the playing, this was not fast for fast’s sake.

The impressive orchestral playing continued in Saan. The work takes its name from the Korean word for mountain – a suggestion by Mikalsen’s Korean partner – but there was little in the piece itself to suggest Korean-ness, apart from the inclusion of Korean percussion instruments. Along with the Oslo Philharmonic, Saan was written for the contemporary music ensemble POING, consisting of the accordionist Frode Haltli, double bassist Håkon Thelin and saxophonist Rolf-Erik Nystrøm.

The piece seemed to struggle to know what it wanted to be. Although labelled a concerto, there were few moments where POING stood out as soloists – rather they seemed to be at one with the orchestra, instigating musical gestures before joining the rest. With an enormous orchestra behind them, the trio struggled to differentiate themselves, be that intentional or just the practicalities of playing with a giant orchestra in a particularly unforgiving hall; the live radio broadcast from the concert seems to suggest that the soloists were supposed to stand out more.

The first movement started with a solitary high note on the alto saxophone, eventually joined by the accordion and double bass, swallowed by a softly ominous blanket of sound in the orchestra. Progressing in fits and bursts, the movement consisted of short, interrupted phrases leading to thunderous climaxes before suddenly disappearing into nothing. The second movement continued in the sound world of the first, yet the musical flow was more continuous. With a large percussion presence, the movement was more explicitly rhythmical, and the whirlwind of sound leading up to the movement’s violent end was intensely engrossing.

Whilst Saan was not intended as a Korean Alpensinfonie, the tempestuous third movement felt like it harkened back to Strauss’ alpine journey, however non-programmatic the intention. The sustained orchestral harmonies conjured images of a vast mountain expanse shrouded in mist, with small figurations from the solo trio slowly dancing above. Progressively larger swells in the orchestra seemed to suggest a storm building up, soon reaching a savage climax. The calm that followed brought the piece back to the beginning, ending by dissolving into the same silence from where it had emerged. As an encore, Poing played an arrangement of “Solitary Traveller” from the third book of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, a meditative look back at Mikalsen’s mountain wandering.

Like the endless exuberance of the Glinka overture nicely contrasting with the violent calm of Saan, the sharply delineated contrasts of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition mirrored Saan’s mix of tranquillity and dizzying sonic whirlwinds. Unfortunately, neither Chang nor the Oslo Philharmonic seemed to get the hang of Pictures’ contrasts at first. While the opening Promenade was nicely stately, if a touch slow, the snarling cello melody that opened Gnomus was without menace.

The orchestra proved most successful in the movements most like the Ruslan Overture. In faster movements, like Tuileries or the ever-bizarre Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, they played at breakneck speeds with an impressively light touch. The groaning ox-cart of Bydło was strangely subdued, lacking in the customary intense drama and loudness, although the painfully high tuba solo was played beautifully, save a few flubbed notes. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle suffered from slightly anaemic strings and the tortuous piccolo trumpet solo sounded panicked and as if it was about to fall over itself.

Towards the end of the piece, the orchestra managed to find the requisite heft, resulting in a Hut on Fowl’s Legs bursting with manic energy, leading straight into a magnificently loud Great Gate of Kiev. In her Pictures, Han-Na Chang showed herself as a conductor willing to make unorthodox choices in a repertory stalwart, and even though they maybe didn’t all pay off completely, they made the majesty of the final movement all the more striking.