The première of a new work is always exciting; especially one that showcases an instrument that perhaps doesn’t normally get showered with attention. I therefore had high hopes for Bjørn Kruse’s new clarinet concerto Chronotope, a joint commission by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and their principal clarinettist Fredrik Fors. A concerto not for violin or piano is a rare sight on concert stages, and additions to the relatively small wind repertoire are always welcome. Sadly, the work did not prove as engaging as I had wished.

Han-Na Chang © Sheila Rock
Han-Na Chang
© Sheila Rock

The title Chronotope refers to terms used by the philosopher of language Mikhail Bahktin to denote how time and space (chronos and topos) are experienced in a conversation, how the memory of what has been said colours the impressions of what is currently being expressed. It started out promising, individual pitches being thrown around in the orchestra, sketching out a sonic landscape in which the clarinet tentatively emerges, almost improvising, growing ever more confident with every roulade. In this introduction, the idea of re-emerging motifs gaining new and different meanings from their musical context was readily apparent, and worked very well. The emphasis on more or less easily identifiable motifs slowly changing made this particular section the most coherent of the entire concerto.

Despite the emphasis on musical context in the introduction, what came afterwards seemed to shy away from that manner of thinking entirely. The music that followed contained a bewildering multitude of expressions, but little concept of what to do with them. There was little interest in an actual conversation between soloist and orchestra, the orchestra mostly creating a static backdrop for the clarinet’s almost Nielsenesque outbursts. There was the odd unison pairing of the clarinet with some wind instrument or other, but never enough to sustain interest. Luckily, towards the end, the orchestra had a more involved role, playing with the soloist, not merely providing accompaniment. Sadly, the sudden uptick in interest lasted only for a few minutes before the concerto dissolved into thin air and ended rather unceremoniously.

Chronotope stands as a nigh-Herculean challenge for the clarinettist, who plays more or less constantly for its staggering 45-minute duration. Kruse showed a propensity for the highest registers of the clarinet, often climbing to the very top of the instrument’s considerable range and staying there for quite a while. The soloist Fredrik Fors conquered the piece’s considerable technical demands, executing the quick runs and rapid register changes with conviction. Yet for all his virtuosity, he could not save this meandering, unnecessarily long piece. As an encore, Fors played Stravinsky’s delightfully folksy Third Piece for Solo Clarinet for welcome melodic respite.

Luckily, things picked up after intermission, with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5 in E minor. The clarinet introduction was very drawn-out, yet the burnished, brooding lower strings provided just enough momentum. The following march had a feeling of inevitability, rising to a violent climax. Throughout the movement, conductor Han-Na Chang balanced the flowing and lyrical with the dramatic and tempestuous very nicely. The Oslo Concert House is not a forgiving house in terms of acoustics, with strings often sounding like they are playing inside a tin can, and the brass overpowering everyone. Yet during this performance, the strings transcended the acoustic, playing with a wonderfully juicy sound, a rarity in this hall.

In the second movement, the strings provided excellent accompaniment for the opening horn solo, played with a deliciously golden sound. Chang stepped back for the third movement, only occasionally making small gestures, leaving the orchestra to themselves, letting the graceful waltz unfurl with a weighty lightness. I might have been sitting in an acoustic firing line, but there was a surprising amount of bass trombone and tuba audible throughout the symphony. While I rather enjoyed the bolstering plushness of the tuba, the bass trombone was downright disruptive, cutting through the orchestral texture at loud moments. Still, the orchestra played with remarkable homogeneity, especially in the fourth movement, despite some rather ferocious tempi.

While premières are always exciting, especially of pieces of the size and scope of Chronotope, they can at times be disappointing fizzles where what was needed was a well-directed bang. Luckily, an energetic and surprisingly beautiful performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth made the initial disappointment a little easier to handle. Thursday was Han-Na Chang’s first conducting appointment in Oslo and I certainly hope it won’t be her last.