On Thursday night, the Oslo Philharmonic presented a programme of pieces that brought the use of orchestral colour to the fore: Like Objects in a dark Room by Henrik Hellstenius, Ravel’s Shéhérazade, and Debussy’s orchestral picture postcards Images. The final two pieces are repertoire stalwarts, but sadly, the new piece proved something of a disappointment.

Henrik Hellstenius is this season’s resident composer with the Oslo Philharmonic, and Like Objects in a dark Room is the first of his pieces to be played this season. The piece was based on the idea of a musical carousel, with musical ideas going round and round, passing the listener at various intervals. While the idea of the piece is an alluring one – Hellstenius remarked that the ideal setting for the piece would be total darkness with the audience interspersed among the orchestra – the execution was lacking. The musical ideas, musical objects, as Hellstenius called them, were shorter, quieter and rather forgettable sonic effects than fully formed motifs. The piece lacked dynamic contrast and a unifying arc, winding up sounding like a series of sounds rather than a cohesive piece.

Measha Brueggergosman © Mat Dunlap
Measha Brueggergosman
© Mat Dunlap

Ravel’s Shéhérazade is a song cycle for soprano and orchestra with texts from a collection of poems inspired by One Thousand and One Nights written by the wonderfully Wagnerian-named Tristan Klingsor, the pseudonym for the French poet Arthur Leclère. Measha Brueggergosman, stepping in for an indisposed Sarah Fox, brought a fantastic sense of wonder to the first movement, fantasising about the wonders of the Far East, but also a very alluring sensuality. The joy with which she sang the opening strains of “Asie” coloured the rest of the movement, creating an almost child-like sense of anticipation and excitement. The first movement is very text-heavy, with frequent lyrical outbreaks, and while Brueggergosman’s lower and middle register, where most of the piece sits, is definitely her strong suit, her high notes were bright and gleaming, even though they were somewhat strained at the very top. The sensuality continued into the second movement, becoming almost overtly sexual, then turning into resignation and disappointment for the third and final movement.

The orchestra poured out a whole ocean of sound, teeming with life, with the woodwinds taking centre stage. Ravel’s colourful orchestration is very much woodwind-based, and there were several wonderful solos, especially the flute in the second movement, “La flûte enchantée”, even though the very opening was a touch too measured.

The final piece of the concert was Debussy’s Images, a set of three pieces written as a sort of picture postcard from England, France, and Spain, respectively. For this concert, the order of the pieces was changed, starting with Rondes de printemps, originally the third movement, then Gigues, the first, and then Ibéria, the second movement. As with the Ravel, the different colours in the orchestration really got to shine, especially with a magical English horn solo in Gigues. Conductor Fabien Gabel brought out a remarkably full string sound, playfully emphasising the dancing nature of the pieces. There was also a remarkable sense of balance, especially in Rondes de printemps, despite the music being fast and generally quite loud. Ibéria was bursting with life, especially because of some very vigorous castanet playing from the percussion section. I did have some reservations against changing the order of the movements, especially starting with Rondes de printemps and continuing with Gigues. It was a lovely touch, however, ending with the festival mood of Ibéria, but I couldn’t help but feel that the piece fell a bit flat.

This was a wonderful showcase of just what the Oslo Philharmonic is capable of in terms of sheer sonic richness. Even though the opening piece perhaps was a bit lacking, the rest of the concert was a true delight.